“You have ancestors. Remember them, their names. The Moken, the Sama-Bajau. Lives before yours, expended on the water. Follow their example through the storms.”
The children nod, although they can barely see Mayer Franken in the fuligin gloom. His voice is cracked, parched, but the words keep pouring. We say, when an old one goes, a library is lost, so Mayer Franken seems determined to share it all, speak every memory before he leaves us. The boat dips, and the timbers creak, and his testimony continues.
“They are out there, the hulks, the freighters, floating and rusting, blind without the satellites. You may find gold in their bellies, you may find death,” he says.
Like so many of our customs, what once was practical is now just ritual. We have no scribes left, no-one to scratch or sustain, and the young have no true memory, no real gift of language. They listen to Mayer Franken because he has a voice that commands attention, but when he is gone, they will fight like rats for his possessions and forget his existence. I have his notes with me, a thick ream of symbols and scores that I cannot decipher yet still revere. One night soon the cold may compel me to throw them on the main deck fire, but for now, they are safe.
Often, you sense the old are only talking to delay the inevitable, but Mayer Franken was there at the beginning, had even been a captain in his time. He deserves this final audience.
“Beware land,” he says. “There is none left you can trust, nothing that isn’t plastic or poisoned.”
He explained the origins of plastic a day or so back, the great gyres of marine debris that entangle and drown the unwary. Already, the details are growing distant from me, the story of black sludge refined into translucent everything, shipped around the world and refusing to rot. When the seas rose, the plastic came with it, he said, the last remnant of sunken civilisations. It all seemed so inexplicable.
Every boat has been represented during the vigil, mates from the scouts, workers from the fisheries. The waves have been fierce all week, bad enough to snatch imprudent mourners, but still they have come, spent time at the old man’s feet. Each craft represented but the last.
He is stirring now, the pace quickening, the tone more guttural. He recites phrases I do not recognise, calls for forgiveness from long-ago. I think he is trying to stand, a silhouette rising against the coal-black, and then there’s a gull’s shriek, a scream – “The Anthropocene,” he cries, and is silent.
The children stir, as though this is the point they have waited for. They move across the deck, lurching and low, and begin to half-carry, half-drag Mayer Franken to the stern. He makes no sound of complaint.
I go with them, conscious of my responsibility, clutching the rail and peering for the light. The sole of my left shoe has worn away, offers no purchase on the slick wood, and I cannot afford to fall. Finally, when I fear we must be at the edge, that three more strides will sink us all, I see him, it – Charon’s lamp.
He is gaunter than last I saw him, more teeth gone from the sides, so that the smile is like a stone in the dark.
“Is he ready?” he asks, and the children fall back.
I know that the last boat is out beyond my sightline, particularly on a day like this, when the sky is closed, the clouds crushed. Even so, lamplight is such a luxury now that I can’t help but scan for signs of life.
Even the children understand the meaning of the vessel at the rear of the fleet. There was a time, they say, when we left the old, the sick, and the spawning on dry land, with provisions and a promise to return. It made sense, if an epidemic threatened to swamp us, to separate the healthy from the diseased. Nowadays, when land has dwindled to pinpricks on disputed maps, Charon carries them to the last boat. A few survive, grow strong again. We expect them to swim back if they want to re-join, never to mention their suffering. Even new mothers, babes clutched above the waves, must brave the tumult.
It keeps the predators away from the other boats, mostly, and ensures a minimum of surplus mouths to feed. As I said, our customs have practical roots.
I do not ask Charon the condition of his former passengers – my comrades, my sister, my friends. It is not our way and he would not tell me. Instead, I help him bear Mayer Franken down the wooden steps to the coracle, following the lamplight and marvelling at how little is left of either man. We will need a new Charon soon.
It is only on the last rung, when the spray stings and the stink of the waves threatens to overwhelm, that Mayer Franken offers his valediction. He pulls me close by my collar, shouts above the splashes.
“Last month, those ridges we saw. I knew them,” he says, his voice clear and strong this last time.
I remember his subject vaguely, a faint ripple of rock engulfed in plastic flotsam, a manmade reef to be circumnavigated and forgotten.
“Scafell Pike,” he says. “I was born nearby, was at school when the first floods came.” There are sobs in his throat now. “That’s where we were, floating above England.”
Charon places him in the base of the coracle, casts off. I follow the lamp for as long as I can, overwhelmed by the urge to share that last observation, to record it somehow. Still, as I climb the steps, I realise that I don’t understand the meaning of the names he spoke. There is no one left to ask.
Edward Barnfield is a writer and researcher living in the Middle East. His stories have appeared in Lunate, Strands Publisher, Janus Literary, Leicester Writes, Cranked Anvil, London Independent Story Prize, The Short Story, Reflex Press, and Communicate.ae, among others. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. He’s on Twitter at: @edbarnfield.