A sailor’s life


First of all, you must know this: they can’t sing. At all. That much is pure folklore.


I remember how we met; it was my first day on the job. The ocean started halfway down a dark flight of stairs. We were equipped with wet suits, oxygen tanks, and flippers, which made it a little difficult to navigate the steps. The water came up to my knees, then up to my chest, then it was over my head and I couldn’t get over the strangeness of breathing underwater. I snapped on my flashlight and was startled by the number of bright, swimming things all around me, garish as a toddler’s plastic toys – spillover from the nearby artificial reef. I snapped my light back off, a little frightened. To think the whole world was once that way!

A complicated set of airlocks took us out into a subterranean parking garage, with pumps roaring to keep it dry. Sooner or later, I’m sure, the U.N. will eliminate the loophole that still permits automobiles as long as they aren’t on land. We squished up several flights of stairs, past a shopping mall mezzanine and the kitchen of a fancy restaurant. The cooks waved us over and pointed to a half-sized door. “There’s more ocean down that way,” they said, “but be sure to knock first.”

Well, guess who we found on the other side. And she wasn’t alone, either.


She had a dark and roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringalets. So went the old sea shanty.

Actually, I don’t mind her roving eye, as long as it stops roving long enough to take me in. It’s when she looks through you or past you that you want to die. Picture Odysseus straining at the mast, the surf roaring in his ears, in his throat, mad to fling his body against the rocks…


Sailors have always been fairly unreliable types, I guess. Still, it’s surprising that it took the scientists so long to verify what sailors had sung about for centuries, whenever their bodies stopped swaying long enough for them make contact with a barstool. Manatees, the skeptics said at first. Then, porpoises. But no: these were true descendents of the hominid line, gone the only direction they could go to escape the genocidal tendencies of their Cro-Magnon cousins. They saw what had happened to the Neanderthals.

It’s hard to imagine the long-term vision and cold-heartedness required to subject your own tribe to a program of selective breeding and strict natal screening, generation after generation killing the infants who didn’t take to the water, then for extra measure killing all who weren’t beautiful. But somehow they must’ve done it — or so my shipmates tell me. It stands to reason. Why else would they still be here, when so many other things are gone forever?


Time passes differently at sea: more slowly, yes, but in a good way. Landside, you’d pay a lot for this much free time. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours down below, watching the light show of luminescent plankton being sucked in through the baleeners. It’s kind of hypnotic. We can catch 20,000 pounds of krill and plankton on a good day — that’s a lot of fireworks. Sometimes I like to imagine I’m inside one of those great sea creatures, the whales, that died out back in the 21st century. Sitting in the darkness, surrounded by flickering curtains of blue and green and red, I straddle my cello and broadcast slow improvisations on longing out into the farthest reaches of the interstellar net.

Edited 8/24/06 in response to reader comments.

16 Replies to “A sailor’s life”

  1. Of course it’s well written, not an excessive word anywhere, enough imagery to make it nearly believable while remaining surreal, one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read of yours, quite marvelous. It does, however, seem quite a traditional depiction of a man and his muse through a story of a sailor and sirenesque mermaids.

    There are some difficult areas:

    There is a problematic discussion of eugenics at the heart of it.

    For the male towards the female, what constitutes beauty, allurement. This seems quite traditional, actually. The mermaid(s) being objects in his gaze rather than subjects in their own right.

    Underlying that ‘male gaze/empty but entrapping women’ sort of “take” is a question about how the erotic impulse can be trained to see something genetically created, manipulated as not just highly desirable but of the stuff of obsession.

    All that said, I do like the echoes of Greek myth very much and the story of the sirens is powerful. I once wrote a mermaid story too, but from the opposite point of view.

    Am I up for a discussion on all this? Perhaps…

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    Karen – I don’t think I’d write like this if it were part of anything larger. The fun is connecting the dots, don’t you think?

    Brenda – Agreed, many conventional tropes here. I’m surprised you didn’t mention how tired the Jonah image is! As for eugenics, is there such a thing an an unproblematic discussion of it?

    how the erotic impulse can be trained to see something genetically created, manipulated as not just highly desirable but of the stuff of obsession
    Well, I gather some girls get all moony about horses. To say nothing of people who breed dogs, cats, etc.

  3. I posted the one I wrote here, and probably will only keep it up a few days. Besides being a mermaid/fisherman story, I draw on the Psyche/Eros myth.

    Dave, I don’t find the use of ancient myths automatically leads to “tired.” Rather, they add richness to the underlying construction of a story – there are cultural roots to this perception going way back.

    But I do find a tired and conventional trope of the artist and his muse, the hero and his winsome wild women sirens here that I didn’t enjoy.

    Since it’s all very self conscious on your part, playing with these conventions, I think you could turn this story from an interesting take to something pushing the envelope of the conventional view… something along the line of taking off those tired, overworn, shall I dare say ‘sexist,’ views perhaps with the removal of his wetsuit. It doesn’t have to be any more than that – simply suggested. And/or something from “her” point of view… would cause the conventional storyline to go askew.

    The narrator doesn’t seem the least troubled by the eugenics that created the object of his desire…

    There are ways of subtly suggesting that he is cognisant.

    Without a hint of an underlying shift in perception, the deeper aspect of this story may go unnoticed. Had I read it, for instance, without knowing it was you who wrote it, I would have thought, it’s well written, but too bad the author can’t see what attitudes he’s continuing to propogate, and dismissed it. But you did write it and so I know better…

    Perhaps you could do something with, say, a removal of the wetsuit, that echoes a removal of conventional tropes, attitudes, 2 or 3 thousand years of tired myth, but sutbtly, yet with enough of a ‘periscope’ for a reader like me to see it, and appreciate the shift in our collective awarenesses of our ways of perceiving each other erotically and in our art, creatively…

    This, just a suggestion, nothing more. The story is emminently publishable as it is and you should send it out.

  4. The thing is, he’s a sailor. Do you really think we’re supposed to believe a word he says? Isn’t this really all the fantasy of a desperately lonely, perhaps unbalanced individual?

    If I had been out to write a conventional, coherent storyline, shifting between his and her perspective is almost certainly the route I’d have gone, I think. But I was really most interested in focusing on loss — especially the ultimate loss of extinction or genocide — and how people come to terms with that. I’ve always figured that myths and legends about the Land of Faery represent buried memories of the eradicated Picts, or other natives wiped out by the invading Celts. So for all I know the siren stories memorialize some other people eradicated by a mixture of warfare and forced intermarriage. Anyway, that’s the kind of mental stew that produced this pungent mind-fart. It is precisely because mermaids or sirens are such stereotypical objects of male longing that I wanted to employ them here, with a plankton-seining sailor trying to impersonate a horny humpbacked whale (Moby Dick?).

    Also, note that in the last sentence he is in effect podcasting. I thought that was damned clever of me!

  5. Perhaps it’s just too well done, then. I didn’t get the underlying irony through two reads before deciding whether to comment or not – perhaps I’m a bit thick, though. I like the passion of your last comment a lot, and wonder if there’s a subtle way you can work that back into the story for the thick-headed like me? Leaving an authorial perspective (versus the narrator’s perspective in the story) in your comment stream, does serve the same purpose…

    (btw, the continuation of this comment thread isn’t showing up in my blogline subs…)

  6. Oh, I will say that the eugenics at the centre of the story did come out loud and clear to me, it was banging inside my head all night and then I had to comment, but it wasn’t picked up by any of your other readers in comments they left…

    It’s what the whole story’s about for this reader anyway. It was like a red flag waving: controversy, discuss me!

  7. Brenda – Two other readers may not be a respresentative sample! You know the way things work in this end of the blogosphere: if someone doesn’t understand or like something, 99 times out of a hundred they keep their peace. If I don’t get too many comments on something, I figure it either flopped, or it stunned people into silence with its brilliance. :) This piece probably belongs more in the “flop” category: not enough clues. Or so your comments lead me to suppose. I should have followed the instinct that told me to put some comment about the disappearance of most marine life forms in the narrator’s description of his first encounter with the ocean, but then I though nah, keep it mysterious. But now I’m thinking that one or two more hints like that would make it a lot more comprehensible and compelling.

    Speaking of Bloglines, it’s been really acting up lately, holding up random feeds – at least I can’t see a pattern to it. I’m thinking of switching aggregators, but that of course would be a hell of a hassle (at least until i get DSL, hopefully around Labor Day).

  8. Dave, I would put it in the category of brilliant, but I do think there need to be a few more hints, and so I would agree with your assessment in your last comment.

  9. Dave, I guess so… but I’d be happy to read the whole book too.

    Podcasting… hyuk, hyuk! Didn’t notice that the first time. (Sometimes you really do have to hit me over the head with it!)

  10. I dearly hope when you get DSL your blog won’t become so pixel-packed that you will leave your slow-connected readers behind.

  11. The universe plays in E-flat by the way, usually several thousand octaves below the E-flat on your cello. Or perhaps, broadcasting your improvisations out to the far reaches of the interstellar net, you already know that. In which case, never mind…. :)

  12. Karen – If it were only about writing, i might do it. But getting a book into the hands of readers is work. I’d rather just blog.

    Bill – You kidding me? You hayseeds will be eating my dust!

    O.K., not really. But I may post an audio clip from time to time, if i can get some cheap recording equipment.

    Tom – I’ve heard that, too, but I’m not sure I understand it. Should I get an E-flat harmonica so I can play along?

  13. Pingback: restaurant rockford illinois

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.