THE SEVEN SECRET DISCOVERIES OF THE CAPTAIN OF THE CANTATA LUCANIA ON THE OCCASION OF RUNNING AGROUND

BEN JACKSON

At the end of things, he did not know whether it was the nearby scuttling of a hungry crab, the first cold brush of the rising tide, or a tattered wisp of an ancient song snagging on his ear as it drifted over the sandbar which woke him; he simply knew he was awake.

Awake and buried to his chin in an unfamiliar sandbar, unable to move.

First discovery: panicked thrashing is ineffective. In fact, it serves only to increase the difficulty that a sarcophagus of wet sand compressing one’s chest lends to breathing. He forced himself to calm slowly, marginally, and take stock of his situation.

Second discovery: he was not alone.

Directly ahead of him, in normal conversational range if there were no raging sea some ten feet to either side, sat another head. It was small, no more than a child’s, and its dark auburn hair hung wetly in the sand in forlorn tendrils.

To the right, a seemingly unbroken line of similar heads dotted the sandbar to its distant, elliptical end where the sand sank into the breaking foam.

Gathering his strength, sucking in the deepest lungful of air he could manage, he shouted with all his might at the figure trapped in front of him. It was only when a crab emerged from the head’s sea-soaked mane, a pale-blue glob of flesh trailing copper strands in its greedy claw, did he realize just how still the other heads were.

 Third discovery: screaming in terror at the highest pitch and volume attainable when buried to one’s chin in a sandbar alerts crabs to one’s presence.

 The first came from behind. Its chitinous clacking as it skittered toward him was impossibly slow, like gravel rolling down a gentle slope. The sandbar could not be more than twenty feet wide, but the approach took hours. The first tugging on his hair, followed quickly by a stabbing, rending pain at the very top of his neck was almost a relief, an end to the eternal onslaught of the single crab. He screamed again, and soon heard more clacking—an impossible amount of clacking—moving toward him. They came from behind, and soon from the skulls in front of him: hundreds of small blue crabs with almost human faces nestled deep between their menacing claws.

The crabs were tentative at first, furtive and darting, a new lover’s exploratory kisses. A speck of cheek, a small square of eyelid, a morsel of earlobe deftly carved with razor claws. These were the appetizers, but it was not long before the buffet opened. Everywhere, rending and ripping, the bits larger, ribbons of skin trailing strips of flesh.

Fourth discovery: when one loses one’s mind, buried to the neck in sand and consumed by crabs, one will hear singing. The man feels power in that singing. It brings with it knowledge that he is exactly where he is supposed to be. It brings contentment in his predicament; it assuages the pain as it washes over his tearing face. It brings knowledge. Forbidden knowledge, certainly, but what can forbidden mean to one so near the edge of here and gone? It is the knowledge of Odysseus, bound to the mast. It is the song that lulls young sailors to the deep. It is the coin with which the Ferryman will be paid.

It is more than the mind can bear unless the mind is already broken so widely open that it no longer is a vessel of containment. It brings back final glimpses of the life he once had: a young boy—his boy—laughing “papa!” as he released balloons from the bow of their boat, their lazy glide over the strait a better guide than any for their crossing. A memory of the boy’s mother astride him in creation. The fingerprint scent of her red hair as he kissed her goodbye for the last time.

The singing also carries to him the memory of itself, the song first heard as the western shore of the strait came into view below the cliffs, dark clouds gathering above. Beckoning. Pleading. Yearning and essential, driving the man and his boy frantic with unearned knowing and a need for more.

It came from behind him.

Fifth discovery: the rising tide is the enemy of feeding crabs. It is also the enemy of their supper. The first breaking wave sent his tormentors to sea, save those with the most tenacious grip. He could feel them tug on strands of his torn face, demanding their dinner as the sea demanded hers. And then they were gone. The wave receded, and the now-saturated sand made breathing even harder. The song surged anew from behind, and he knew the next wave would be worse, would not recede fully, and that his time above the tide was running out. He tried to close his eyes against the next surge, only to discover he had no eyelids remaining to close. The salt water burned in the open cuts and swiftly filled his mouth.

Sixth discovery: As the song of the siren builds behind one, even when the first bony fingers wrap themselves in one’s hair, one will tear oneself in half to avoid seeing the singer. And it will be futile.

Then as the tide rose, filling his ears, the tune changed. Underwater it was no more distant, in fact, it was somehow sharper. Instead of the promise of knowledge, however, it promised only the passing beyond knowing. It demanded his eyes. It insisted on being seen.

Seventh discovery: in the last moment of human life, one will know eternity and damnation, burned in the eyes of the siren. And then one will only know the sea as it steals one’s sandbar, one’s son, and the distant memory of life above as one learns how to sing.

Soon, another boat will come.