The Book and Rose
7th May 1885
I have been looking forward to this. It was a relief to leave Southampton and I anticipate a rewarding journey. I initially had misgivings about the thought of a solo crossing to the Americas, but I must say that I have now steeled my mind and soul to the endeavour and, with God’s blessing, shall be the first to achieve this aim. My sponsors, William Gray’s Insurance, have warned me to keep my mind on the voyage, not to have either morbid or grandiose thoughts whilst I travel alone. And yet, as I now move out into the Channel with the sound of the water slapping the hull of my vessel all I am aware of is the lofty walls of the tide that echo my expectations.
Into this short, constricting, boat I have bought along a pet for company. My cousin, Edward, has given me a small canary to help distract any wanton thoughts I may have. I have decided to hang the cage from the yardarm during the day, so that it may enjoy the air. However, I have also thought that the gulls may make it aware of its imprisonment since it constantly flutters about the cage in an agitated state. At night, or during storms, I shall take the cage below decks. Have named the canary Poseidon.
I opened a packet of biscuits for dinner to eat with some cold soup I could not be bothered to warm. Must discipline myself more.
9th May 1885
A difficult night’s sleep. I rose from my slumber as if pulling myself from a muddy pool. The sound of Poseidon’s fluttering and scratching and the constant resonance of the water kept me awake most of the night. I sleep in a compartment a little shorter than I. My head rests on a jerry can and I have the bird’s cage beside me. My knee sat in a pool of water all night and it sent a chill through my entire body. I have no blankets or pillows, just layers of clothing to insulate me.
I have just had a peculiar thought: this is the first time I have ever been alone. Truly alone. My loneliness echoes off this hull almost like a song. I hope I do not suffer from morbid thoughts.
I have lost sight of land, but gulls still hang in the air around me. At night my lantern illuminates their underbellies and they seem like phantoms as they shift across its beam.
I wonder how often we look at the world around us. I now see Turner’s fixation for ships and water. The light is dazzling – the blue of the sea merges with the sky and the waves are little more than clouds on the surface. And equally soft to the touch. I’ve been looking around me and the clouds in the sky lay immobile with tracks across them like furrowed fields. The blue is dark.
Shortly after dawn the wind had subsided. By mid-day it was quite calm. I peered through my telescope but nothing was to be seen.
10th May 1885
I dreamt last night. I was on a beach that curved away to an infinite horizon. The tide was out. The sky was clear blue. I was a young child, but I do not know exactly how old. All eyes looked at me, laughed at me. I sat on the beach, trying to tie the sand into knots.
I have decided to audit my vessel. The width of the ship can be no more than ten feet, whilst from stern to prow I calculate to be a fraction over thirty. On deck and below, any available space is taken with supplies. I have decided to rearrange them so that I have aisles to help me get around. I have decided to store the oil above decks, along with the water; whilst food, clothing and perishables I shall keep below with me. I have also decided to remove the rowlocks because I keep snagging my clothes on them. The boat sits quite low in the water with most of the hull below sea level. At first, this did cause me much consternation that I would sleep with my head below the waves. It seems a dangerous proposition and I would have thought a taller hull with a deeper keel would have been safer. I trust the designers. They tell me my boat uses the same principle as a Viking longship: a flatter, wider hull provides more space and stability.
When the days are clear and the wind brisk, I can make good time with little to do but sit by the tiller, singing an aria and suddenly realise this glorious realm is my home, and castle, from prow to the horizon. My worldly delight is to govern as I see fit with Poseidon my sole subject. The waves may groan assiduously at the beam of my palace and yet…and yet, I know that I am the master of all I survey – as the first star shifts into the evening sky or the sun spreads out at dawn; I command it all. Even the steel-hard waves that butt against this vessel must part for my journey.
13th May 1885
I’m in the middle of the ocean with the past behind me and the future open.
17th May 1885
I saw dolphins! They came within 20 feet of the boat. Instead of a blue colour they were a dingy brown – even duller than the reluctant blue of the sea we call grey.
It is several days now since I last wrote in my diary, and it seems difficult to fathom that I am the same person who set out ten days ago. I find it odd that it was indeed me who has set down these words.
It causes me concern to be alone. Indistinguishably alone. I have only Poseidon for a companion; and in so being, the means to instil in my soul the feeling I am not the last creature alive in the cosmos.
I cut my hand on Poseidon’s cage as I tried to fix the oil pump. Got the pump working again. The red blood was a curious sight. My eyes have been blind to everything except the blue and white. The blood was not only a cut on my hand, but a cut through the monotony.
Wind came up today and with it the waves that sung a syllabic song. Poseidon, caught outside in the storm (I forgot to bring him in as I was below decks manically pumping the bilges) has been constantly agitated since. He flaps futilely around his cage and gnaws at the bars. I have put him below decks. The water that came in once more destabilises my faith in the boat’s integrity. It was an odd feeling trawling through the waves. It was both exciting and terrifying. It must be an anomaly of life that those things that cause us most danger are the most exhilarating.
25th May 1885
When considering this endeavour I had taken myself to be a man who was capable in mind and body. A man who was not given to the arbitrary needs of a self-absorbed and hamstrung society – a society whose aspirations I thought disgusted me and whose rituals I thought of as sham and needless. Now I find myself desiring the company of another person; to see the crinoline and commerce that is so many miles behind me. The pleasure of seeing the painted faces of the ladies of a Sunday afternoon as they walk down the high street and a lighted breeze blowing through their hair. Or, indeed, the rough curses of the gin-drinkers. I find myself longing for this company – anything, anything. Whether it be foul or fair – something to remind me that I live and that I am not truly alone in this world.
Though I am. I know I am. And I shall continue to be so for as long as it takes me to reach my destination. I will admit to a secret thought: sometimes, sometimes (in moments of clarity and desperation) I dread that I cannot get to where I am going from where I am. The world is so far away.
30th May 1885
Missed opportunities. I hope the dolphins come back – I want to talk to them. Anything has to be better than Poseidon who has still not recovered from his malady. I have put him deep down in the boat because his agitation annoys me.
Who am I? I feel no identity. I don’t exist if no one can talk to me. Language is the source of our being. I only am when I can use the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ – without them I have no being. Our souls rest not with God but with language. It is through language that I exist. My only comfort is the sea’s song.
4th June 1885
Five centuries have passed. Nothing.
The wind came up again. As it rose I sang the Carmina Burana. Somehow it seemed so apt. I’ve felt the wind on my face, the rain and the sea’s shadow. I can hear the scream and the sigh, everyday. The sea sings with such relentless rhythm – a baritone! Hear it! Hear it!
All around me is alive. I hear the ocean. Its song is a bitter one, but I know its tune and I believe I can sing its refrain.
The mast stretches away from me, into the midnight sky. The blue is black. The world is a wonderful place and we are all victims of its apparent simplicity.
Can it be twenty-eight days since I was cast into this prison? The sea has changed; the bleak winds have bedevilled the ocean so that they promise a tempest to replace the calm. There is a chill in the air that our heater cannot dissipate, even though I am sure it is not the drop in temperature that upsets me so…
I find myself compelled to confess to a dark truth. I feel I must submit this to my journal if only to prove that I am, once again, in full reasoned control of my wits. As the water toiled about the boat I found myself possessed of a dreadful urge to commit myself to the waves. The waters were a tumult of wild excess and there, as I stood, I wished myself to be one with it. I feel shame in admitting this, but why should I? I will set out my thoughts now: I was aware of a sudden urge to throw myself into the waves.
7th June 1885
Some days past now I have tackled with a violent storm that raped the sea and threw about this shallow vessel a terrible cloud of ebony water and withering squall.
During my battle I knew no notion of time; I knew only the unforgiving roaring of the storm and the fear that I would be ripped from my vessel, dragged out to sea by the very powers I sought to control. As I fought, as I contested the small berth of the ocean I rested upon, I heard the force of the cyclone sing a powerful song that at once both out-roared the clamour and sung in perfect harmony with its vigour. How shall I express this? What can I say? I felt at times as though I was riding the most fiery black stallion, that charged with sharpened hooves, that spoilt the ground it trampled upon, that ripped and lashed its teeth upon whatever stood in its way. Yet, at other times, I was aware of the black sky, aware of the rain against my face and the bones beneath my skin.
The storm has now abated. The ocean is calm once more. The sky’s colour is a passing mauve and there, low on the horizon, rises the sun. It is a steady fire that lifts, drowning the sea and sky – the air about me – with its colour. As I watch, the firmament turns to blood.
15th June 1885
I have constructed an experiment. It is said that we use only a small share of the mind’s potential. I intend to tap the reservoir. As a child I had an imaginary friend. For me, he was very real – I gave him identity and existence. In this respect he was real. Since he could be interacted with he had to exist. Now, what I propose is that using my mind I will bring something into existence (say, a simple trinket to begin with). Diligent concentration and eyes to believe will be my resolve.
The mind is the key. I have been concentrating and Poseidon remains silent, although he shrinks away when I approach, and he has taken to scratching himself, rending his body with weeping scabs.
What trace of my past can I conjure? I need a whisper of companionship – what is it I solicit from the world? What is it that betokens the missing grades of life and light?
A book. The last refuge of the lonely. Seated here before the tiller I have dreamt, I have mused, I have then concentrated with every fibre of my being upon a book.
For the last hour I have read such a fantastic tale the likes of which only poets and dreamers may think possible. But as I finished the tale all I had in my hand was this journal. I have read another story in another’s words. A simple palimpsest. I am removed from this earth, no less than the seas around me. A token, I seek a token.
I ask a simple sign. An expression of the world I have left behind: a dew-covered flower, bright and vital. A rose.
I closed my eyes and pictured in my mind a field of scarlet. Not the scarlet of the light through my eyelids, of the blood in my capillaries, but the heavy and radiant scarlet of the rose. Steadily I trained my mind on this resonant image and found the noise of the seas around me dissolve away, the confines of my cabin vanish and I found myself absorbed with the smell, tint and texture of the flower – I fused with the substance of the rose.
But then its form died with the smell of its flower, and in my hand I held a piece of seaweed taken from the water.
18th June 1885
Poseidon has died. I saw him this morning in his cage. He has destroyed himself in a vile way. The creature’s body was bare almost, only the most tragic and forlorn feather stood on its body like a palm tree on a tropical island. Its corpse was pale, its pink skin showing the blue veins beneath. I threw the bird’s carcass into the water where it was clawed beneath the ocean.
22nd June 1885
I do not know how much longer I am going to be on my own. I am being carried away to God knows where. We are all transients in life. We can’t get to where we are going from where we are. I’ve had enough, so I’ve decided to proceed and summon something new. A woman, obviously. I’ve thought about this, and shall try.
I have been cursed.
After eating I tried to search my mind and bring her into being. A light! From beneath the waves I saw a light slip to the surface, and then a form.
What have I done? A thing I cannot, will not, recall. Her hair has the sight and stench of seaweed and her pallid skin has two sunken orbs where the eyes should be. I have dragged from the seabed a bloated corpse – a casualty of a sunken wreck.
I fought with her. The boat nearly fell beneath the waves that screamed and sang around me. The timbers of my craft cried under the stress of our battle as water seeped on board. I pulled the tiller from its place and used the wood as a weapon in our contest. Her eyes! Her eyes! Venomous teeth that chattered not with the cold, but with passion. And her clawed hands flailed over the beam of the boat as I struggled against her, and she tried to pull me under.
All around me was damnation; a purple sky shot with brilliant gold as a storm ransacked the sea.
We fought for over two hours, but eventually she submerged once more into the brackish waste.
26th June 1885
Each night since her first appearance, the lich that I have created has haunted me. Each time we fight a hurricane reigns, a chorus of destruction heralds our contest.
But last night something new happened. I had given up the fight, and when she came I decided not to fight but to let her take me as I once plotted to take her. But no. When she came she mounted the prow and stood there looking at me. She was a hideous apparition, haloed as she was by a violent sky with an electric nimbus surmounting her head. Then she jumped over board and I never saw her again, although I waited.
I understand now. I hear her call, the song. All day I’ve sung it. I rode the waves and brows, singing, singing, singing. I followed the chant over the sea – I laughed at the words, at what she sang to me. I cried at the utter truth and power of the melody. It is a chorus of all that I feel. However, one last verse evades me. I’ve strained my ears so that I can make sense of the words but from here they make no sense. I have tried. And so, because I need to know those final words, I have resolved myself to an ultimate plan as I sail upon this vast and lonely ocean.
When she comes tonight I shall join her. I will take myself unto the depths to escape this malady, cast myself into the granite waves to join this wild performance. Finally I will hear the whole song.