Gray of the Water, Gray of the Sky

Here is a thing that I know: I am Noh and I have built myself a boat because the world has filled with water. I call my boat Noh, it is the only name. Noh and I, we have seen the water’s level rise and fall; seen the same debris float by hundreds of times; and sometimes I am afraid I have forgotten how to speak. It has been too long. The days, the years. Well, I have stopped counting them, but they still trail behind me. Rather like a fishing line. If only I had a fishing line. I owned a net, some time ago, and if I was careful and Noh held steady for me, I could use it to catch a fish. Without my hands. They burn and peel and crack around the knuckles. I hate to ever put them in the water. A net for a fish. Just one. Small. The big ones, they all stay at the bottom. I cannot see that far.
Noh and I, we started small. A boy and a boat and a motor that stopped working long long before I lost my net. And each day I marked with a fishbone added to a bottle on Noh’s lowest shelf. There have been many bottles and I am running out of bones. Time has made us bigger, taller. Toys from the water, they are the things that make us grow. Wood. Buckets. Bits of rope. Bottles. Plastic bags. Rubber ducks. Wooden crates. Bones of rotting birds. Strands of kelp. Salt-soaked feathers. Wooden handles of rusted knives. They sit on driftwood shelves I built going up and up. Shelves tied in place with twine and weeds and rags ripped from clothes, bleached into dust by the sun. Noh, she grows as I age. She is as tall as a tree—I think, unless my memory has failed me. I must have grown as well. I can reach out and touch the ocean now. Feel the water against my fingers. And the both of us, we creak when we move.
Noh, she is a pretty lady. I love to give her gifts. And if she breaks, I know just how to fix her. Rope is a strong thing. And she knows how to care for me as well. She gives me leave to string canvas across her low shelves.
This is where I hide from the light. The sun, he is a hurtful beast. The burns he gives me leave my shoulders scarred and full of freckles. I used to fish at night, as the moon is much kinder. But the days, they pass, and my eyes, they fail. The dark now turns the water and the sky into one great blackness.
And when I use my hands to reach for fish or the salty weeds of the water, Noh keeps me from the shadows I see there. They are tricky things. It is a man in the water that I often see. If only I could reach out and pull him in to rest beside me. Or else join him where he sits. Converse for a while. Noh is a pretty lady, but she is not one much for talking. It is her only fault. Unless it is mine. Sometimes I think I never had a voice. And Noh, my lovely girl, her tongue is tense inside her mouth for want of sound. No, I should not pretend as I do. I am no fool. And Noh, though she moans and groans, will never speak a word.
We were not always just the two of us, Noh and I, as I found a child once. The length of my arm from wrist to elbow she was, with a soft, white middle and round, round eyes. When I pulled her from my net, I thought she must be dead. Her middle soaked and sagging heavy. I thought of throwing her back into the water, leaving her to sleep whatever sleep it is the dead have mastered. Floating by on their stomachs. The dead, most of them disappeared long ago as well. I think it was the birds. They peck. Prod. Rest on swollen stomachs as they float. Nest between ribs. The child, I thought she must be dead, though she was not yet rotten. But I am selfish and so I held her for a while. Imagined she was warm.
I imagine like this sometimes. Pretend the water is earth. Pretend the world is full.
Gray she was, her skin, I mean. Arms blotched and stained by the sea. Her head fit in the palm of my hand. It was as I tilted the child back, thinking I should let her go, thinking to let her drift away. That was when the young thing shut her eyes. She shut her eyes, I tell you, and I saw it with mine. But I am not a trusting man. I am afraid of my imagining. I have often tricked myself. I have often thought the water was earth. Thought the world was full. So I picked the child up once more, watched with my own eyes pushed open as big as can be, and the little one, she looked at me. Her eyes, they were the color of water far, far out. At midday. In winter. With the sun behind clouds.
I confess, that day, and the next, I spent only with the child. Poor Noh, she was alone. We played our blinking game. I held her so that we looked straight at one another, her eyes wide, my eyes just as wide. But if I were to ever lay her down, she knew to shut them. This was the game. Those were the rules.
The child, she was good. She never cried, nor laughed. I should have liked to hold her hand, but her hard fists remained curled shut. I made due by pressing my cheek against her scratchy belly. This was what skin felt like. I had forgotten. Cold and smooth. Or else like the canvas. My own skin, it is burnt and toughened into rough patches. Nor is my belly soft as cloth like hers. I do not think I look much like a person anymore.
Here is a thing that I know: children, they have mothers. I do not like to think of mine often, of her not being here, not where I am. It’s where the ache comes from—the one in my stomach and my throat. She had long hair, I think, the color of Noh’s hull. Maybe the ache comes from somewhere else—an empty stomach, a thirsty throat, it is confusing sometimes.
This child, she would not tell me of any aches in her own stomach. She would not tell me of her mother. Or of hunger pains. This creature puzzled me. Noh is the only one I understand.
She and I sat anchored for a good many days with our new friend. I imagined I would teach the child how to speak. I imagined I would teach the child how to snatch at fishes with her hands until they burned from the salt. I imagined that the water would sink and the two of us would step from Noh’s hull and wriggle our feet through the dry land. Sometimes I imagine like this, though I should know better.
And I worried for the child, she would not eat. I am not a brave man, and I am selfish. I did not want to leave the place where I was anchored. Where there were fish, sometimes. And weeds floating to the surface to braid or chew. But she did not eat, the child. She did not cry, she did not laugh. Do well by others, Noh, I told myself. Do well by others, that is what makes you a man. Maybe. And so, Noh and I, we pulled up our anchor and left. Left in search of a mother in the wide, wide ocean.
There isn’t much out here, in this place I have drifted. Looking into the water, sometimes I think I can see the tops of places built by hands. Or I think I can see the hands themselves, offering to shake my own. How does the skin of a person’s palm feel? Noh, my beautiful Noh, she has no hands to shake. Do I see a paved road, down there, on the seafloor? Do I see wheels and swings and windowpanes? It is my mind. It is playing the blinking game. I stare too hard and too long and then I blink and it is all gone. This is the game. Those are the rules.
There is a song, I think—the water is wide, or deep or long, I cannot make it across, nor am I a bird, so I cannot fly—or something similar. And I cannot see a thing. For we came to a water so deep I could not see through it at all, a black blue, capped in foam so thick I thought I might easily walk across it on my own. If Noh can walk across the water, why can’t I?
I spent all that time with the child. Lifting her from her rest, wanting to reassure myself that she was still alive. I wanted to watch her eyes open and shut. Open and shut. I wanted to hold her balled up fist in my own palm. I wanted to run my fingers through the hair that peeled in flakes from her scalp. I do not know how long we spent together in that state of staring. I no longer recognized the debris that floated next to Noh. Now I wonder how far I must have traveled for that little creature, it is a thing I will never know. A child might not meet its mother in a place as wide as this. There are only a few of us. Maybe only three of us. Maybe only two of us. Maybe now, only myself. Alongside Noh, my wonderful girl, floating in the wideness and the water. Watching what can be seen—gray of the ocean, gray of the sky, blue of the ocean, blue of the sky.
Here is a thing I know: Once I lived on land. This was before. And I slept on the soft, still, and dry. And there were blankets wrapped around my shoulders by warm hands. Hands through blankets. How does the skin of a soft palm feel?
Here is a thing I know: The sky, what it looks like before the rain. So when the child and I looked up from our blinking game, at the sky full of colors without names, I knew how the air would rip open again. I knew how it would happen. The water getting deeper. Noh and I, we lashed ourselves together. And I clung to the child and we rocked. And felt salt against our skin. And let water flood our noses and our mouths. And our hands, they were cold. And I kept my eyes closed. And I hoped the child would do the same.
And there was nothing.
Well, the water was still there. And the sun, he came back. And I slept, still tied tight to Noh. I slept for too long, woke to sun blisters and salt crusted burns along my arms and neck and face.
And there was nothing. Nothing. The water was empty for many long distances all around me. Blue. Green. Gray. White foam. Not a branch. Not a length of rope. Nothing. I looked up at the driftwood shelves I built for Noh, still going up and up, still tall as a tree. Up and over my head. But there was nothing sitting safely in their clutches. No bottles full of bones, no rubber ducks, no wooden crates. And I remembered the child. Fallen in somewhere. Sunk to the bottom. Floating far off. God only knows.
The waves out here are different. Large. Loud. I sit with Noh, we watch what we can—gray of the water, gray of the sky, blue of the water, blue of the sky. The child, she is gone. My net, gone. The days, I no longer count them.

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