Forsaken, Almost Human

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Fishermen Stefan and Lucien start for land as the sun falls and discuss the lyrics of a Leonard Cohen song. Inspired by the Claude Monet painting "Impression, Sunrise".

A wooden paddle broke up the reflected orange beam of light oscillating on the surface of the harbor, and the canoe proceeded on its course towards the dipping sun.  Stefan, his burly chest jutting out like the canoe’s bow, drew in the piscine and smoky headwind through his bowed nose.  He was erect behind the deck plate, a warped piece of triangular plywood, viewing the horizon’s masterpiece--a fireball of tangelo and the glaucous clouds environing it.   Uncanny shapes and shadows extended towards the earth’s ceiling of brushed and dabbed pale hues.  Lucien, hunched and leaning off the edge of the stern seat, grasped his paddle’s handle with white knuckles; he watched as the duckweed shrouding the lake dispersed and dove under.

“It seems the sun is on fire,” Stefan mentioned between strokes over his left shoulder.

“It is on fire, you idiot,” murmured Lucien, still observing the duckweed.

“No ... you know what I mean.  Don’t you smell the smoke?”

“Well, of course; I have a nose.  But why would I think it’s coming from the sun?  The sun’s something like one hundred million miles away.”

Stefan twisted his angular hips to face Lucien.  “Yeah, and it’s also enormous, but that’s not what I meant.”

Lucien looked up with petulant eyes.  “What did you mean then?”

“I don’t really know.”  Stefan turned back to the horizon.  “I just connected the two, I guess--the sun and the smoke.”

“You smelled the smoke while looking at the sun?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it.”

“What’s your point then?  Why’d you tell me?”

Stefan broke from paddling and the canoe veered off to the left.  “It’s just interesting how my mind blended the two senses together.  I almost didn’t realize it.  It seemed real.”

Lucien straightened his back, pulled in his paddle, and sighed.  “Yeah, and sometimes, when I meet a girl for the first time, I smell something bad--garbage or B.O. or something--and forever I associate that smell with her even though I know it’s not true.  I still smell rotten fish when your wife is near.”

The canoe lurched as Stefan spun around with a glower of forehead furrows.  “God dammit.  I told you not to talk about my wife.”  Receiving no reply, and perceiving only Lucien’s amused dimples, Stefan sat down.  “What’s your problem today?  You’ve been moody all day.  Every time I try to talk you grumble something smart.  I feel like you want to piss me off.”

Lucien rolled his eyes and glanced back at the duckweed.  “Just don’t feel like talking today ... and you keep talking.”

“What happened?”

“I said I didn’t feel like talking.”  Lucien lit a soggy cigarette with a red-headed match.  “And you don’t want to know.”

The canoe gyrated atop the diverging currents, creating swirls of duckweed; only around the bow could the lake’s water be seen, which was a hue most resembling Davy’s gray.  A lull--broken only by waves beating the wooden boards and fish fleeing the depths--enwrapped the canoe and its navigators.  Stefan gazed past Lucien’s frown and at the distance behind him; with each rotation the tangelo sphere neared the dim silhouettes of land and the canoe drifted farther away.  Streaks of violet materialized high in the sky as fumes from Lucien’s cigarette twirled towards the heavens.

“All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them,” Lucien whispered with the melody of song.

“What?” Stefan asked, inching closer.  “What did you say?”

“All men will be sailors until the sea shall free them,” repeated Lucien, this time with the insipidity of proper speech.

“I thought you didn’t want to talk.”

“I don’t,” Lucien said, taking a drag.  “It’s a line from a Leonard Cohen song.  I was singing.”

“Sounds like something from the Bible.”

“Yeah, probably.  But it’s so true, huh?”

Stefan ran the length of his index finger down over his mustache; he always did this when contemplating heavy thoughts.  “I suppose if you’re always searching for something.”

Lucien flicked away his cigarette, which plopped onto a lilly pad.  “Yeah, but that’s not all.  It’s the ‘sea shall free them’ part that bothers me the most.”


“I said I didn’t want to talk.”

“But you’re talking!”

A coarse chuckle escaped Lucien’s chest.  “I didn’t say I wouldn’t talk; I said I didn’t want to talk.  I guess sometimes a man has to talk about things he doesn’t want to talk about.  Maybe I’m being selfish.  I don’t want to discuss what you want to discuss, only what I need to.”

Stefan grabbed an opaque bottle from under his seat and pulled out the cork lodged in its neck.  “You need some wine, my friend.  Was it my comment about the sun being on fire that bothered you?--because I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“No, you were right: the sun is on fire.  It’s burning up.  Firestorms are raging all over its surface, and here we are, floating in peace on a secluded lake.”  Lucien shook his head as Stefan offered him the bottle.  “Every day we come out here, fish, and return to land.  It’s always the same.  It’s as if we were continuously paddling towards that sun.  It’s always there--falling--and we never reach it.  And those black forms on the coast; I can never tell what they are.”

Stefan took a swig of the wine.  “But they’re pine trees.  You know that.”

“I know they’re pine trees in the morning when we walk by, but I can’t make out what they are now, and by the time we make it to land it’s dark and I can’t see them.  So, somehow over the coarse of the day, I lose sight of what they are.”

“Now it’s my turn to ask: what’s your point?”

“Hell if I know.”  Lucien took a burbot from the net at his feet and held it up with the tip of his finger.  “Doesn’t it seem ... irregular ... that we catch fish and sell them for money?  What are we even doing out here?  How can we claim the right to sell what comes from the earth?--especially from this lake.  I don’t know.  It just struck me as odd the other day, and I can’t stop thinking about it.  It’s like we’re stealing from Earth for a profit.”

Stefan stroked his mustache again, this time with harsher strokes, and perceived Lucien’s fuming cigarette laying on the lily pad.  The outer rim of the raging sun descended behind the skyline, and darker tints of blue and gray began accumulating from nowhere.  A seagull, which had been gliding above undetected, squawked and continued to circle--watching, waiting.

Lucien regarded the sky-stalker and dipped his paddle into the lake.  “Let’s get going.  The seagull overhead just called for its friends.  They’ll be here soon whining and begging for food.  And it’s getting dark.  Our light bulb burnt out yesterday, remember.”

“No, no ... it’s okay.  There’ll be a full moon tonight, or at least close to one, and the seagulls would never swoop down to steal from us.  They’re mostly opportunistic--only brave when no one else is around.  And I want to keep discussing what we were discussing.  I think you’re right: there are firestorms raging all over the sun, and we don’t even realize it.”

Lucien scattered some duckweed.  “Well, the sun’s basically one big fireball.  I suppose it wouldn’t produce any light or warmth without it ... it being fire.”

Stefan lifted the wine bottle for another mouthful.  The head of the bottle sunk between his chapped lips and the butt pointed towards the hovering seagull.  “Big thoughts we’re thinking today.  Probably shouldn’t be though.  Cécile--who smells like a rose, mind you--and Sophie are back at home.  I have to keep things light and optimistic for them.  Doesn’t help saying depressing things.”

“Yeah, but I have no one, so it doesn’t matter.”  Lucien lit another damp cigarette.  “Just listen and ignore whatever you’d like then; everyone else does.  No one wants to see the truth anymore, because it burns too much.  The light, the warmth, is often too bright or too hot for comfort.  And we love our comforts!”

“That cigarette you’re puffing on is a comfort.  This wine I’m drinking is a comfort.  So what?  Why not live as comfortably as we can?  We only have one life to live.”

Guffaws burst out and rippled through the duckweed.  “So we spend our time catching fish from a lake, stealing from Earth, all so we can pay rent and taxes and bills!  You do it so you can put food on the table, food that was probably farmed or raised by fools like ourselves.  There’s just a disconnect somewhere.  We can’t see the trees anymore--they’ve vanished from our conscious--and we’re still sailing!”

“I told you it doesn’t help saying dreary things.  You’ll just get more depressed.  I never should’ve said anything.”

The topmost point of the sun dissolved into the distant land and the vividness of the horizon’s foliage dulled.  The mysterious shapes, which were pine trees in the morning, merged into the ambushing twilight.  Stefan appeared disconcerted.  Threads of blood like webs sprouted on Lucien’s whites.

“The line from the Leonard Cohen song bothers me because it implies that the sea must free me and that I can’t free myself,” said Lucien, the cigarette trembling between his lips.  “The only way for me to be free would be to fall into this lake and drown.”

“What?  Don’t be...”

“That’s the only way to be free from the sea!--allow it to swallow you!--allow it to murder you!”

Stefan stood up and inched towards the ash yoke.  “Well, we’re on a lake, so...”

“Don’t be stupid.”  Lucien drew in a chestful of tobacco fumes.  “You know what the sea is.  You know what it does to you.  You know how it’s never-ending, how you can never actually see anything from the heart of it, from the middle of it.  You can’t even reach its depths, because its depths are endless.”

“Well, you’re wrong,” said Stefan, as if Lucien had denied the existence of Earth.  “Just because some song implies you can’t save yourself doesn’t mean you can’t.  There’s plenty to be happy about.  And, believe it or not, you can find truth in anything.  Do you know the one truth I know?”

“What?” Lucien grumbled, tossing away his cigarette. 

“The sun rises everyday.  It’s always there for us.  Even at night, when you think you can’t see it, it’s there, shinning its light on the moon--which we can see!  And even when there’s no moon the sun’s still there, because we’ve seen it.  Wisdom and truth don’t simply disappear.  They’re always there, in everything, at all times; you merely must find it.  I can see the trees on the coast, because I saw them there this morning and they’re in my mind.  I can visualize them now if I’d like.  They’ll always be there.  Yes, the sea is vast, and it’s not always forgiving, it’s not always easy, but it’s beautiful in its own way because it allows me, you, us, the opportunity to find its meaning.  The search itself is life.  Without it, what would we be?  What would we do?”

“But it’s maddening!  We’re always doing the same things, making the same ignorant mistakes.  Each day the sun rises only to abandon us.  And no, I’m not speaking literally.  I understand you can still see the sunlight on the face of the moon, but it’s not the same; it’s a reflected glow.  Even the wisest human being has moments of despair and melancholy.  A single lifetime has thousands of sunrises and sunsets, thousands of ups and downs.  And it’s all for nothing!  I know you claim this to be the beauty, the meaning of life, but I don’t.  I don’t!  I’m tired--tired of everything.  Why do I, you, deserve any pain?  Any punishment?”

Stefan frowned with wrinkles of pity and swished some wine around with his tongue.  “But perfection’s impossible,” he said after swallowing.  “You want everyone to be happy, to be comfortable, free from suffering, yet just a little bit ago you were complaining about comforts and how no one wants to know the truth.  If everyone is perfect, living in perfect comfort, there’s no need for truth.  You’re contradicting yourself.”

Lucien dipped his paddle back into the lake and dispelled more duckweed.  “Perhaps you’re right, but we’re all still pieces of duckweed.  All we’re doing is waiting for some giant paddle to appear from above and force us under.  That’s our hope.  That’s our existence.”

A renewed hush advanced with the appearance of the full moon and its halo of luminescence; it laid its placid hand on the wavy charcoal strands of water and put the life below asleep.  The canoe rocked so slightly its passengers, through their ruminations, forgot they were adrift atop a severable and mobile liquid.  From the bow seat Stefan regarded the gleaming satellite above and embraced the wine with his gums.  His musings melted into the alcohol and again his mind was clear--harmonized with the atmosphere bearing down on him.  He envisioned Cécile and Sophie preparing supper in the kitchen.  His life was simple, his tastes plain.  Lucien, however, allowed anguish to sketch hopelessness on the ripples between the converging duckweed.  He didn’t, couldn’t, discern the glimmer from the moon--from the sun--resting on the skin of the duckweed, the lake, the paddle, the canoe, and even his own arms.  He was alone, in rebellion against the world; Earth and its mass of air pressed down on him.  People could tell him to stay positive and optimistic, to be blithe and content with the methods of existence, but he couldn’t.  He couldn’t disregard the way life should be.  He couldn’t force his mind to think a certain way or his soul to lead him down a particular path.  Beyond the coastline of mystical shapes and forms was a village, beyond that a sprawling metropolis, and beyond that more of the same crawling across the land.  Like millions of others he had been dropped randomly into a life of precarious meanings of which the source could not be located.

“All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them,” Lucien began humming, unaware of it himself.  “But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open--forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”

“Come on!” Stefan yelped, hurling the drained wine bottle onto the bed, which produced a series of thumping echoes.  “What did I tell you?  Stop ... just stop.  It’s doing you no good.  You know what--come home with me.  There’ll be plenty of food for you.  Don’t go home and eat your bread alone.  You need some company.”

Lucien’s eyelids concealed his glossy orbs.  “Company’s the last thing I want right now.  It’ll make me feel more helpless, more of an outcast.  No, don’t worry about me.  I can take care of myself well enough--as well as you can.”

“Doesn’t seem like it,” mumbled Stefan.

“So you would say!  As if your blessed life and family were the only way to exist!”  For the first time Lucien stood up; crinkles of desperation pinched his face.  “Next you’re going to tell me to move to Montreal and get a better paying job, become a slave to society and money.  You ... you have no right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do.  You don’t even know what you’re doing--or why.  Because it’s the way it should be?  Because other people do it?  Why are we all fishermen?  Why must we fish?  For what?  What do you gain?  I’ll tell you!  We gain nothing!  Haha!  It’s all nothing!  Your way, the way of following the ways of others, is no way.  How are you anymore alive than a fish?”

Stefan couldn’t tolerate such dementia any longer, thus stretched out to his full height with crimsoning cheeks.  “Hey!  Shut up!  I’m not going to listen to your nonsense anymore.  Keep your deranged thoughts to yourself.  I do have a blessed life and family, and I’m proud of it.  I’m happy the way things are and wouldn’t change any of it.”

Lucien’s eyes darted all around, unable to look into Stefan’s.

“So,” continued Stefan with a sigh, his sudden rush of choler ebbing, “please sit down and let’s go to shore.  I’m tired, probably getting a little drunk.  I shouldn’t have drunk all that wine, but you ... no, it’s not your fault.  Let’s just go.”

“Alright,” Lucien muttered.

Satisfied, and doubtlessly relieved, Stefan turned around, eased himself onto the bow seat, and grabbed his paddle.  But Lucien didn’t sit down; instead he mounted the stern’s deck plate and gazed out at the murky lake as a sweeping cloud screened the moon.

“Okay, ready?” asked Stefan.

“But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open,” whispered Lucien.

“What?”  Stefan spun around on his seat.  “What did you ... hey, what are you doing?  Sit down.  Let’s go I said.”

“Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone,” Lucien continued.

“Enough of that damn song.  Let’s go.  I thought you were ready.”

Lucien’s focus shifted to the charcoal fluid below his feet, and he mumbled, “Don’t sink slowly.”

Stefan rose with distress scribbled all over his face; the boat swayed.  “What?  Sink slowly?”

Lucien wasn’t listening; a fire of his own had kindled under his sternum and tingles of spirit were now raiding his muscles.  “Swim,” he said--this time audibly--almost as if he were announcing it to the world.  “Don’t sink.  Swim!”

Alarm flared up on Stefan’s wide chestnut eyebrows, and he stepped over the thwart.  “This is ridiculous.  Get down.” 

But a grin of defiance had sprung up on Lucien’s lips, and, before Stefan could cross over the yoke, he leapt into the calm darkness of the lake--an assemblage of duckweed plunging into the depths at his heels--and was engulfed by its coldness and apathy.  

Stefan stumbled to the stern and leaned out over the water; he watched, he waited, yet no forms emerged.  “He didn’t ... did he?  No ... he couldn’t.  Anyway, he said ‘don’t sink’.  Yeah, and then he said ‘swim’.  So he’s swimming?  Haha!  The fool!  He is, isn’t he?”

Soon the lake reverted to its equanimity, the duckweed to their clusters, and, after a few more minutes of waiting, Stefan paddled towards land.  Although Lucien could not be seen, he was there, somewhere, just beneath the surface--a fish fleeing from the baited hooks of fishermen.




Submitted: September 14, 2015

© Copyright 2022 RdTollackson. All rights reserved.

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