It was Sunday and I couldn’t be bothered with Vancu’s chalkboard, on which I had to write down where I could be found over the next few hours ; everybody knew that in the Tropics I went to the stern in the afternoon, to lie stretched out on the wooden grates around the pool. After we crossed the straits and entered the ocean, the rolling of the ship had fuddled us, and on the previous night a generator had gone on the blink. I hadn’t slept and I was thinking of the afternoons when I floated on my back in the freshly painted pool, with my eyes fixed on the sky and the chugging of the chimney in my ears. I gave a bored wave of my hand and went to fetch my towel and book.
The breeze was gusting and I was thinking about the Berber sleeping in the sun, wrapped in his burnoose, in a port on the coast of Mauritania, when reality impinged on my hearing once more, with the buzzing of flies, cheeping of sparrows, spraying of hoses, slapping of boot soles and barking of voices, as happens when they wash the decks and holds. For a while I prolonged the anaesthesia, scrunching the aerial war between my eyelids, its lines becoming more and more fragmented, its planes more and more mobile : the cloud of flies swarming out of the holds was decimated by the sparrows, and in turn the sparrows were hunted by harriers. On the port side, whence the African winds blew powdery sand that collected around the portholes, infiltrating the bushing of the motors, the light was vaguely coppery.
After a while I stood up ; the hubbub had died down, the hoses had been coiled, and steam was rising from the deck. When I emerged from the cool of the stern to take the garbage to the bins, I noticed that the tall lad was stalking something, holding a slipper in one hand : a beetle or maybe a scorpion that had strayed on board in the blinding sun.
“How’s it going ?” I asked in passing and gave a start when the swarthy man with the tattooed chest turned to me and gave a yellow toothed, vacant eyed grimace.
He lifted his hand and flung something in the water. I heard the plop and I saw his head turned towards me in puzzlement.
“What are you doing, hombre ?” I said.
“Nothing, I’m going after it...”
As he leapt, I froze, waved my arms, ran, shouted, I could hear my voice inside my brain, my throat was dry, I looked around for a lifebelt, I burst into the forecastle, climbed the ladder, my fingers were trembling, I yelled down the first telephone, the first mate, repeated it almost simultaneously, the speakers boomed in the cabins and on deck : MAN OVERBOARD PORT SIDE ! People came running, the siren blared, the ship veered, turned, met its wake, but I knew it was in vain. What could you find at that speed ? I went up to the wheel house and panted out the whole episode to the captain, who scratched the back of his neck, then his belly, and tried to calm me : “A good job you were on the ball,” he said in his bittern like voice. “He’s a goner. But we’ll stay in the area till tomorrow. The sea’s calm, we’ll keep the ladders lowered over the water and a man on deck. That’s the drill.”
Neither then nor later, lying in the penumbra of my cabin, could I get out of my mind that weary smile of his when, one rainy March day, he had climbed on board, tall and lanky, with a rookie’s suitcase slung over his shoulder, after he had trudged through the mud of the quays looking for the ship. The captain had labelled him “bugler,” but then he changed his mind and made him “garbage man” and sent him to the dustbins, where the men before him had done their probation, vague faces who had left no memory of their passing, either on us or on the cabin in which the newcomer was to live. One evening, stooped and awkward, he had knocked on my door, and from his mumbled, saliva flecked words I understood with difficulty what he wanted : he made wooden boats that he sold in port and needed some little light bulbs. I gave him the bulbs and also some cable and plugs, and in the days that followed, when we saw each other on deck, he would hasten to acknowledge our complicity, of which he was proud : he waved his arm, but immediately after that he would waggle his hand in such a way as to suggest that something wasn’t kosher. That was the word he used, with a sour, whistling exhalation and different, conflicting grimaces. Everything about him was somehow crooked, and when I saw him walking the deck, with disjointed, fractured movements, I used to think that, if he bumped into a parapet, he would instantly turn into a heap of bones.
Over the next few hours, nobody asked me anything, but during the night, the older ones hung around, troubled, irritated, fearful, they might have telephoned, but they felt more comfortable tapping their fingers on the door, and when I opened it, I gazed deep into their eyes until they looked away, we had been travelling the seas together for a good few years, and if they had asked me, I would have told them everything I knew, unflinchingly, some of them snorted in chagrin, he had got away from them, they hadn’t managed to recoup their losses, they had been grumbling for days on end and whenever I told them he’d lost his mind, they would shrug, he was always like that, you didn’t know, you didn’t see him catching seagulls with a piece of thread and talking to the bird and flicking it or sometimes punching it, if he saw a dropping on his fresh paintwork, you didn’t see him rummaging through the garbage in port, collecting old junk, he’d turned his locker into a garbage can, he stunk, they didn’t even let him enter the laundry room. And they kept going on like that until it made me sick, I gestured for them to sling their hooks and in the end they left, I heard them rustling now at one cabin door, now at another, I knew that they felt like breaking out some bottles, but they were afraid the captain would find out and a few days later, in Abidjan, instead of fucky fucky, they’d be sweating on the main duck, chipping off rust, painting, with beaded brows.
They chatted for a while longer, and then there was silence. The only sound was the rumble of the propeller and the growl of the ventilators sucking up the coolness of the night. Later, there was a clanking sound from the kitchen : the assistant cook had woken up and was clearing up after the night watch. After which I fell asleep.
I don’t know what hour of the night it was when I felt the nightmare gathering beneath my eyelids, but I was terrified at not being able to open my eyes. I was leaning over the rail on the poop, on my face I could feel droplets from the spray made by the propeller, the seethe was drawing me with a power I was unable to resist, the deck was vibrating through the soles of my feet and in my innards, the roiling water was dancing before my eyes, I could hear it churning, and I fell, but one of my ankles was caught in a rope on the deck. I don’t know how it had got wrapped around my ankle or how I had ended up hanging upside down, above the water, terrified that by the time somebody came to pull me back up the blood would start gushing from my ears. Somebody did come, pulled me back up, but when I tried to turn around, I slipped and fell down again. When I woke up, I was soaked with sweat and bile was burning in my gullet.
Outside the darkness had begun to unravel, and the first mate’s impatience increased as it grew lighter. He had started the search as soon as his watch began and even though the visibility was poor, he kept sweeping the sea with his binoculars, covering wider and wider expanses, keeping a mental note of each direction in which he had searched. From time to time he would put down the binoculars, have a puff on a cigarette, and then start all over again : new sectors, new directions. Nobody had his eyes. All of a sudden he remained stock still, he positioned the binoculars more snugly in the orbits of his eyes, he lowered them, stood up : “Captain, something moving on the larboard side !” The captain stubbed out his cigarette, scratched himself, coughed, frowned, pressed the binoculars to his eyebrows, then looked at the radar, intrigued : “What the hell is that ? Lower a boat and have a look.” Noises from the boat deck, rumbling, clanging, the throbbing of the engine, announced the expedition. But only when the boom thudded, the winch roared and the boat crew boarded did everybody come out on deck, from where it was possible for a while to see the orange craft with the naked eye, after which it was visible only to the captain and first mate, using the binoculars in the wheel house. Then there was silence again, as if nothing had happened : the men ate their breakfast, the watches were changed, and the morning released its effluvia of iodine. I hung around the lowered crane for a while, checked its limiters, and then, in disgust, I went about my own business. I checked the compressors, replaced a sensor in the refrigeration unit, and as usual finished my rounds on the bridge. With his back hunched, the captain was perched on the high chair, made by the carpenter, listening to the panting voice of the first mate with the radio receiver pressed to his ear. From time to time he gave a hacking smoker’s cough. “What, can’t you see anything yet ?” “Yes, I can, captain, but I don’t get it, it’s like a school of dolphins.” “I haven’t seen any dolphins in the area !” “They’ve gathered here, captain.” The pounding of the engine in the background interrupted the first mate’s voice. “How much farther ?” “Less than half a mile, captain.” “All right, get a move on ! Do you hear ? And tell me when you get closer. Your man’s drowned and now the dolphins are guarding him. I’ve heard of this before. It’ll be a right mess if we have to freeze him.” From somewhere behind, the lament of a saxophone came from the radio. There was no point in my standing next to the captain. I went out, walked around the bridge, climbed up to the deck above, then to the radio mast. On a ship, the mast is the quietest place : from there I watch the phosphorescence of the clouds, the pulverisation of the light, the ocean’s crinkled back. “Captain ! They’re starting to go away !” “Who ?” “The dolphins, captain. There’re only a few left.” “Ah, the stretcher bearers,” said the captain, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “He’s here, captain, they’re wheeling around him, I’ve seen him !” “Is he alive ?” “Yes, captain, we’re getting closer, he’s floating face up and laughing !” “He’s what ?” “He’s laughing, captain.” “At least he’s not crying ! Take a picture of him and mind how you lift him out ! Wrap him in blankets !” The first mate acknowledged the order and then his voice was not heard for a few more minutes. The captain pressed the button on the radio, checked the battery, took an irritated drag on his cigarette : “Hey, lads, what’s happening ? Have you gone dumb ?” But there was no reply from the boat.
Finally, the first mate’s voice, drowned out by the engine : “Captain, we’re on our way. The lad didn’t want get on board and I hit him with an oar. He wanted to pat the dolphins on the head. I’ve tied him down.” The captain immediately lit a cigarette and sat down at the computer to relay the event : the “garbage man” needed to be repatriated and he suggested it be done from Dakar, the nearest port. I took the binoculars from the map table and scanned the horizon. From the radio, the saxophone was pouring out King Leopardi nostalgias, and I remembered the ivory miniature the tall lad had bought the last time we were in port, in Dakar, from an old man on crutches wearing a hat. He kept it on his bedside table, and when he invited me to see it, he told me that the pregnant woman carrying a jug on her head was a goddess of sleep : he always had difficulty falling asleep, but when he looked at her, he started to yawn. Once, on deck, he had whispered to me, as if imparting a deadly secret, that the goddess was lonely and wanted him to find her a mate. And as I turned my head, looking through the binoculars, I thought that in a few days, at dusk, after we docked, I would have a chance to go to the bazaar on the wharf, find a mate for the goddess, and make the tall lad happy. I don’t know whether the good mood that came over me was because of that thought or whether it was because I had seen the orange blotch appear in the lenses of the binoculars. I signalled the officer on watch, and after he checked, he said : “Captain, the boat’s coming.” The captain seemed amused, he didn’t scratch himself, he just winked at me. “Well then, we’ve picked up Mr Funeral Repast. Did you see the sharks prowling round about ? You can see their periscopes. He was lucky. If the dolphins hadn’t turned up, they’d have eaten the funeral repast by now.”
Manoeuvring the lifeboat requires care and precision on the part of the sailors on board : the craft needs to be secured on the hooks quickly, because the waves can capsize it or even make it crash into the ship. Only after it has been secured and is being winched up do the sailors relax, they wave to the men in the lifeboat and crack jokes. But this time, after a restless, mostly sleepless night, the men moved listlessly, dragging their shoes, dropping their tools. I watched as they slowly headed to the lifeboat deck and I saw their outlines against the reddening expanse of the sea. Only after they had cast the lines and the electric motor started to chirr as the cables lifted the boat did they realise that they were about to set eyes on the man whom they had constantly harassed for months and it seemed to me that something inexplicable came over them, that after they straightened their backs and looked around them, they began to emerge from their dimensionless lives, in which unease could never be mistaken for fear, that they gave up floating one of the surface of the other, intuiting that that man, like every other man, was the victim of his own choices. Then, the noises ceased, and only after he stepped onto the deck, wrapped in blankets, bearing on his face the traces of a nameless unhappiness, did the tall lad open his eyes, and from his purple lips, connected by a fine thread to all that was alive and resigned in him, there came a faint half whisper : I didn’t find it.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth