OBJECT: Bars of Silver
BODY OF WATER: Arthur Kill
—The only men I admire are suicides, I repeated, as the Turk looked away, or not away but rather past me, the Turk was frequently looking past me, his thoughts seeming to drift like the wisps rising from his meerschaum pipe’s slow burn—only to wheel back when I least expected and fix me with a gaze of redoubled intensity. In the morning on rising I immediately drank the cup of black coffee and smoked both of the cigarettes allotted me by the Turk, then lay back in my berth and stared through the porthole at the sun’s perplexing diffractions for several hours before the Turk requested I join him above.
The Turk was not satisfied with this answer. As a rule the Turk was not satisfied. This constituted the principal distinction between us: the Turk was in no way satisfied, nor would he be satisfied, even under the most satisfying circumstances, even if after untold adventure and hardship, for example, he were to secure the object of a lifelong obsession, he would certainly find himself still more dissatisfied, his new dissatisfaction proportionate to the degree by which the consummation of a private ambition nourished over decades of unflagging if fruitless one-minded dedication toward this end ought to have left him absolutely sated—and yet even then, when the truth would have necessarily been most clear, he would have immediately convinced himself that he was satisfied, even while simultaneously and also immediately initiating plans for the pursuit of some other objective toward which he might bend his considerable energies and, assuming eventual success, since in the end the Turk always succeeds, fail to concede to himself then that he was still unsatisfied; whereas I both knew that I was not satisfied and knew that I never could be satisfied and in this knowledge I took my sole, perverse satisfaction.
Obviously the silver would make me unhappy. I would be miserable with the silver, as I was miserable without it; nevertheless I could think of nothing but the silver— or rather the silverand the Turk. The silver in a Turkish context. The success of the Turk. In the silver cache’s untold scintillations I saw the terrible success of the Turk. For the Turk was a terrible success, as of course even a fool could see. It is only the terrible successes, the truly monstrous masters of their affairs, that dare present themselves as the saviors of vagabonds they find crawling naked and filthy through the streets of sub-tropical trading posts just before dawn, doglike (though this was an island with no dogs), emitting obscure growls and honks. I don’t remember the weeks preceding my rescue at the hands of the Turk. However I remember our first encounter with perfect clarity, I see even now the outsized Turkish face looming all too clearly, as he knelt and clasped a dusky hand to my shoulder and in accented but flawless English inquired after my well-being, so that I had no choice but to challenge him to a duel.
The Turk refused that duel, as of course I knew he would do, only the favored, the victors, the gifted, the masters, the Turks, only those touched with infallible knowledge of their irrefutable will are permitted to refuse such a challenge, only a man dares refuse a duel, we sub-men are inclined, are even impelled, to try our luck, which will naturally be bad, in fact, it’s even the case that the less likely I am to succeed in a contest, the more likely I am to enter into it. For this reason I challenged the Turk to the duel, a single glance of his beard alone—that prosperous beard—was enough to confirm beyond any doubt that I’d be slaughtered the instant we withdrew our swords (I would of course need to be lent my weapon, from a squire or confrere), he would slaughter me with ease, without relish, it would be an absolute chore, a great inconvenience not to say a gross imposition on the efficient orchestration of his daily affairs for him to have to submit to the tedious etiquette governing such concerns and await formal sanction to run me through. Without question I’d be slaughtered, and therefore Ineeded to propose the duel, it was impossible for me not to propose the duel, it would have been easier for me to resist the motion of blood through my veins than to fail to demand that the Turk accept my challenge to a duel, I would be nothing without the duel, I knew this from the second I saw the black curls of the Turk’s copious beard encroach on my field of vision and I abruptly put an end to my gratuitous noise. Without the duel I would be even less than what I’d been when the Turk found me slobbering and insensate, wailing, clad only in smears of red dirt crawling among cockroaches of unusual size and brash disposition, in front of the Outpost of Progress, a saloon or tavern or watering hole I had frequented in the months preceding the onset of my debilitation, an establishment patronized primarily by a certain elevated cast of entrepreneurial men, among whose ranks I immediately took the Turk to be, though on this and not only this count I was of course to discover I’d been somewhat in error, as the Turk was many things but surely not a mere entrepreneur. I could only have refrained from proposing the duel if I possessed a shred of hope for victory; if I hadn’t witnessed the athletic lope with which he altered course from across the quayside thoroughfare and approached me in my gutter, the casual grace with which his saber curved from his side, if I’d believed even in the possibility of a fluke or unexpected triumph, if I had the smallest hope of victory through some error or mistake I would have ignored the Turk, rolled back into the muck where the native insect rank and file was concentrated in even greater numbers, but one’s impression of the Turk, one’s absolute first impression, is that here is a man who does not make mistakes—so that I had no choice but to grope immediately to my feet, brush off the several large bugs still clinging to my torso, and challenge him, tell the Turk that on my honor—here I paused to consult the small timepiece I had lifted from a passing trader’s unattended pack that very afternoon, the gears of which had frozen some time ago—he would not live to see another dawn, and to ignore the spreading concern on his face, and to insist that the cock would not crow before he stood face to face with Our Lord, Heaven or Hell hanging in the balance, kneel and repent now, beg my forgiveness, I demanded; however the Turkrefused.
Only a man like the Turk could have refused. Only a Turk is so authorized. In the end, if I desire a duel, even if I insist upon a duel, especially if I insist—one might almost arguebecause of my insistence—I lack the authority to enforce the duel, my desire is my guarantee against its ever transpiring, which is precisely why I am compelled to insist upon it, and I insisted even as the Turk took hold of me and hauled me bodily to the cleansing springs, at the foot of Oyama (“Mount”) Oom, repeatedly dunked me under the waters that in dubious native lore are reputed to heal, with force but not untenderly bathed me with rich Turkish soap, and insisted on draping me in cloaks selected from his own private wardrobe, in which garments I still dressed each day when summoned against my will to join the Turk on deck, I was resplendent under a burning sun, as we discoursed and paced, as we crossed wits, as we tested for weakness each other’s defenses of ideological ground, while I inwardly addedwrinkles to my plan, which already included the drowning of the Turk’s wardrobe, in full, before absconding with the silver-cache, which former task I have presently all but assured my successful completion of as of the draughting of these notes.
On the island, to which I came nursing private hopes of accruing a small personal fortune I would then use to achieve entirely selfish ends—which ends I will presumably accomplish this evening, in spite of my initial and protracted failure—it was not uncommon to come across a certain specimen of conscientious objector to the rapacious policies of the vast commercial enterprises engaged in the systematic ransack and plunder of that plenteous island, the brutalizing of the native population, the naked scorn for civilized opinion, let alone law, there were voices to be heard on occasion amid the general acquisitive tumult, crying out for justice, for the cessation of outrage, indignant objectors to the forces of oppression, who of course nine times in ten, ninety-nine times in a hundred, happened to be failed tradesmenthemselves, in general the scale or intensity of an objector’s indignation was commensurate to the size of the hopes for personal gain he’d had to abandon as a concession to his ineptitude or faltering will. Expelled via failure from the colonial business caste these envoys of justice gathered in the corners of nigh-empty salons to discuss the native plight, to shed tears over the fate of a population already decimated by foreign-introduced disease, crushed by the merciless logic of the very market on which they aspired to sell their anthologies of protest—assembled essays, screeds, pamphlets, tracts, composed in a general tone of artless indignation—clustered in cafes around noon to orate with eloquence and grace, loudly, but not too loudly, refraining from all but the most absolutely necessary of pounded fists, furiously praising the inborn virtues of the exploited native population they had as a rule been too weak or inept to exploit.
—Never trust a crusader, I advised the Turk, who, leaving aside the theatrical compassion of his rescuing me, was himself no crusader, was in fact a brutal man, a maniacal force, pure embodied Will, I knew the Turk well, I’d known the Turk a hundred times before I met the Turk, perhaps in less Turkish incarnations, but Turks nonetheless, the Turk was no crusader, he was brutal, though not necessarily cruel.
The Turk declined to respond, only rarely did the Turk find it necessary to respond to my declamations, and I suspected he had little to say, although it was not always possible to tell what he thought or might say because the Turk’s eye was frequently agleam. I had briefly considered providing him with one last opportunity, not even sure precisely of what this opportunity would consist, but the sagacity implied in that gleam squashed any last considerations of mercy, which at any rate had never been serious. An old song came to mind.
—If I fall into the drink, I sang, —I will say your name, before I sink. . . .
—What’s that, asked the Turk, looking up.
—A ballad, I said, —of dypsomania.
—It’s very pretty. Did you write it?
—No, I said.
—Well, not the melody, which I suppose I recognize, said the Turk, —but surely the lyrics—
—Neither the melody nor words are mine.
—I suppose you nevertheless make it your own, mused the Turk, peering out into the foggy iridescence that trailed the ship to port, —after all, who is this You whose name you propose to despairingly whisper, as you sink, finally, into the drink, he asked.
—I’d never thought about it, I admitted, taking another pull from the flask the Turk permitted me to keep filled with water, —myself I suppose.
During our nightly tête-à-têtes, the Turk often asked me to clarify for him certain facets of my psyche, but he has never enquired after a direct explanation of or accounting for the state of personal dissipation, the loss of bodily-functional control evident in the scent I exuded as I wormed through the tropical dust, never pressed me for the details I would at any rate have been utterly unable to provide pertaining to or accounting for the dramatically reduced state of my personal affairs, the personal corrosion I’d either endured or inflicted on myself prior to his coming across me, there in the sub-equatorial muck.
In lieu of ever requesting some factual accounting for the period anticipating my decline, the Turk had continually resorted to obliquity, cant, a pipe-smoking disinterest, one was inclined to feel, as he stood by the wheel (paying no heed to the pilot, a burly illiterate fellow) and wondered aloud what I thought about, for instance, the teachings of Sir Thomas Browne, whose works I had never read, or even heard of, an imputation against my own scholarship that I elected not to disclose, casually pursing my lips at the mention of the name I had until that moment never heard, suggesting with that single dismissive mien an acquaintance with and utter disdain for the author whose birthdate I would have been unable to pinpoint within five hundred years, whose British—I suspected—lineage, I could only adduce by the titular Sir, the Turk seemed content not to challenge my critical stance, meanwhile the Turk never once asked me my name, never, which is in fact in part why I refer to him here exclusively asthe Turk, even though this was not his name, or even a sobriquet bandied about by seafaring familiars, and despite his having immediately informed of his Christian name, as he put it, as well as his abundance of titles, and in spite of his never once having provided me with so much as the slightest suggestion, not even a hint, of actual extraction, or even the vaguest reason for me to imagine that he or his people had once hailed from the nation of Turks, or even anywhere nearby, even a distant country nevertheless lumped in with what we Occidentalists condescendingly term the Near East, for all I knew he was from Peking, or New Amsterdam, or my own hometown of –––––––, though this last seems unlikely, given the niggardly tumbledown inconsequence of that supposed city; the one thing I could be nearly certain of, however, indeed the one certainty regarding the heredity of the Turk was that he without question could not have been an actual Turk by blood, I have known far too many Turks to be misled on that front, never in my life have I mistaken a non-Turk for a Turk; however I steadfastly clung to my appellation, privately, and here, in these notes, he will always be the Turk, though in fact when we conversed I never once addressed him as the Turk, never let slip the slightest intimation that I’d privately christened him the Turk, and in point of fact, called him by his as he had it Christian name every time I addressed him, even going so far as to include several or all of the honorifics and professional titles he had accrued over the several decades of his considerable success in an assortment of ventures, enterprises, varieties of mastery over diverse industries, though he’d explicitly asked that I refrain from deploying the formal titles when speaking to him, had in fact urged me to call him only by his Christian name, though he’d never asked for mine, yet I was perversely impelled as time passed to rehearse the entire line of formal or honorary titles, so that in these notes a reader interested in strict adherence to the facts would need to substitute a nearly paragraph-long preface of titles which I decline to include for every recounted instance of Turk-directed speech, not limited to the times I claim to have directly addressed the Turk as the Turk, since these times naturally never happened, but also any time I addressed myself to his attention, even in casual discourse, unless he expressly forbade me from repeating verbatim the paragraph-long sequence of honorific titles for the third or fourth time in so many minutes, in which case I would temporarily acquiesce, subsequently lapsing inadvertently, as I protested, into further reiterations, but precisely to the extent that I have refused to refer to the Turk as anything other than the Turk in these notes, in person I declined to address him as anything other than the extravagant sequence of formalities that I have herein replaced with the Turk, and this may not be the only liberty I have taken with the facts.
However it is indisputable, the only necessary fact, that as I paced the quarterdeck with the Turk and we superficially transacted in relative banalities, I was simultaneously afflicted with the most strenuous suppressed compunction to lay myself bare before the Turk, to expose thegenuine reasons for the failure of my manifesto, the work that was to have thrown the whole horrid enterprise into sickly light and my protracted failure with which anticipated and no doubt ultimately contributed, indirectly, to my collapse, to my eventual drunken writhing amongst the island vermin.
Of course it was not only the cockroaches I had come to loathe, though I did loathe the cockroaches. I had been apprised of the inborn loathsomeness of the native population, the cunning, the relentless untruthfulness, the senseless, petty machinations, the brutish dishonesty and heathen stupidity; however, before I arrived I believed these observed phenomena—if indeed they’d been observed and not concocted by sinister agents of the assorted commercial interests who stood to gain justification or credence for their rapine enterprises with every degree by which popular conception of the natives was reduced, which I doubted—believed these loathsome attributes or traits could be written off as consequences or symptoms of the subjugated people’s very subjugation—before I arrived I was entirely prepared to embrace in toto the culture even to the point of the idiosyncratic or exotic, perhaps even going so far as to embrace or even take part in customs I might otherwise have found inconceivably repugnant, as for example, the symphonic slurpings and smacks to be heard at every repast; the disgusting food itself , which is as a rule slimy and cold, they like it that way; I was even ready, I freely confess, to participate in certain nocturnal rituals I’d heard rumor of but never been able to confirm in the flesh: I was ready to accept the whole panoply of oddities in a primitive people about whom, let us be clear on this point, I actuallyknew nothing. Because I was on their side when I came to the island. I disdained to frequent the cafes and ragtag colloquia popping up in support of the supposed revolution’s foment, the pasty and unlikable assemblage of artificial anarchists who claimed a similar allegiance but were actually motivated or driven by precisely the same voracity that they vociferously decried, were outraged and appalled by, I eschewed their easy company and struck out on my own, on a solitary crusade against the forces of oppression, the venomous, wraithlike lurking commercial interests, but the natives, whose cause I’d come to the island to take up,never liked me.
Never, not on a single occasion did I once look up into a native’s eye and see anything other than the loathing he or she would have ordinarily reserved for a cockroach, which creatures, parenthetically, on the island, were the size of small birds, and, like birds, able to fly, never was a young native able to resist the urge to snicker or look away with sheer gleeful disgust, absolutely unable to resist even for the sake of decorum the comedy inherent in my very presence, so that it was only natural that eventually I would come to enjoy the spectacle of their systematic devastation, their continued exploitation at the hands of the forces I had initially come to island to oppose, only natural that where I had come to the island intending to expose the odious practices of the ruling elite lording it mercilessly over the (languageless, half-naked, crude barter-economied) barbarian swarm, lay bare the full machinery of their insidious schemes to an otherwise tolerant, even favorably disposed general population at home, the public having largely been duped into believing these men to be not only heroes but generous, compassionate, soft-hearted benefactors, philanthropists, the very souls of ruddy-cheeked fatherly goodness, I soon found myself quite actively rooting for these monsters, the colonial kings, the very men I’d initially believed would be the antagonists or arch villains of the sordid tale I intended to tell of exploitation and incomprehensible greed before debarking from the mediocre vessel on which I’d come in all innocence.
What did I care when I saw a native girl of no more than sixteen dressed in the ceremonialoothta, a kind of full body–length sleeve, the ritual hopstick aslant through her finely bound hair, a single piece of bleached goat’s fur bound with a bloodred sash so tightly about the waist that movement was restricted to a kind of acquiescent shuffle, ushered into a room to which I was barred access by the inconsequence of my station but from the gloomy inner dimensions of which I heard the familiar baritones and clinking decanters of genteel carouse, just as I was prevented access to any of the inner circles of the island’s governing elite, how could I care for the girl destined for untold humiliations and sexual adventure of the most deviant, despicable kind, when the very same girl, or a girl who at any rate looked just like her, had not half-an-hour past ignored my repeated entreaties for service at the corner table I’d been ushered over to and ignored at for almost an hour, when all I’d wanted was to order a drink for which I intended to tip her handsomely and wholly unnecessarily, since tipping in this backwards culture is not merely unrequired but in fact can even be taken as a kind of grave offense to a service-employee’s honor, even whole ancestry and in some fairly exceptional cases to her entire race, depending on the conventionality of the individual server, but I was willing to take my chances with this shy, graceful generously-legged barmaid in the hopes that she would appreciate the gesture of unpremeditated generosity, even if the cultural significance might be wholly lost on her or even at first something like a slap in the face, only she ignored me and in fact when I finally, having cleared my throat and even gone so far as to whistle, softly, raised my voice and asked in the faltering phrases that constituted the sum of what I had been able after six months to acquire of the native tongue and she was forced to approach in order to avoid undue commotion, she spat in the sawdust before not so much acknowledging me or my patronage as occupying my table’s immediate vicinity and indifferently loitering.
Of course it was with a certain trepidation that I’d joined the Turk in the first place. And on joining him in his private berth I was persistently vexed by his personal assistants: the Turk’s assistants were perpetually appearing at odd hours, I’d occasionally awaken to find one or the other of his assistants shuffling around at the foot of my bed, once even smiling up at me from beneath the blanket I lay under for the first several unspeakable days of my purge . . . or perhaps this was merely an anecdote from a novel I’d been reading before the onset of my sickness. However, at some point during the composition of these notes—which I decline to revise—I may have given the impression that I’d forgotten the weeks leading up to the moment at which the Turk encountered me at the height of my dissipation; I believe the exact phrase, or at any rate the phrase was similar, was that the days or weeks or months or even years (possible but unlikely) stretching from the moment of my first encounter with the Turk back to the precise moment of my collapse, the exact details of which I have also forgotten, were a blur. However, this was not strictly the case. It is true that I can recall very little in the way of particular actions or activities, conversations, or articulate patches of thought; however I can remember all too clearly the general character of that awful epoch, which was that I was continuously drunk.
Many years ago I was taken on as a young scion’s secondary English tutor and I found that among the more taxing pedagogical tasks I was charged with performing for the urchin was communicating the subtle distinction between those sibling modifiers “continuous” and “continual,” so let me be clear: I was not habitually, that is continually, at regular and predictable intervals during this period, drunk; I was continuously drunk, which is to say that there was never sobriety during the period in question—about which I have perhaps somewhat misleadingly suggested I remember nothing when in fact I remember all too well, and in revealing now the full extent of my succumbing and despair, such as, for example, that I ransacked native orchards at the foot of the island’s noble central mountains, illegally absconded with armloads—multiple armloads, because I went back—of the sacredwakawakyu melon, the native fruit prized the world over, of course, which I made off with to the makeshift distillery I’d established in the small natural alcove carved out of the face of a promontory facing the island’s northern coast before I was driven out by bats, intending despite my absolute ignorance as regards the distiller’s trade to let the stolen fruit ferment in vats I had also acquired outside of the law and guzzle the resulting nectar, which spirit I dideventually quaff but was unable to hold down, so that the bats were more of an afterthought, really, I didn’t mind being driven out by the bats, those hostile local residents were in fact almost a relief since they made my presence in the cave and makeshift fruit distillery I’d established therein with nothing but my need and gross ineptitude to guide me inconceivable, so that I now had no alternative but to return to my life of petty larceny, which in the end wasn’t quite so petty, considering that the colonial news organ (a comedy) reported an alarming rise in bulk theft of high-proof liquor during the time (unless they reported no such thing and I am merely elaborating on a fantasy or dream I was overwhelmed by during the full force of my debauch), and it was speculated that a sophisticated syndicate or ring of pirates had made bold now to assert itself, declared to the colonial authorities that an upstart force would need to be reckoned with in the neutral waters just offshore, but there was no syndicate, no interpenetration of corruption and well-connected greed: only my insatiable thirst, I was a bandit, heedless, wanton, running amok, berserk, and it is no exaggeration to reiterate the distinction that I was emphatically not continually three sheets to the wind, the intoxication was continuous, the intoxication was absolute, even during my short apprenticeship as a private fruit distiller I kept my cave’s makeshift bar well-stocked with stolen rum, there was never an instant during which the alcohol was not coursing through my veins, the term “continual” requires intervals of inactivity, which there never were.
On the other hand, what I remember most clearly about the period anticipating my collapse was that it was marked by continual drink. Toward the end of my dying struggle with the discarded manifesto, before I’d abandoned even the semblance of compositional effort, when I was still concerned with providing all observing parties (of which there were naturally none) with a plausible facsimile of scholarly diligence, but after I’d realized that the muse or spark of genius or mere competence was not with me, my manifesto would never shake the earth, in fact my manifesto would be insufficiently competent to qualify as a manifesto, not even a manifesto of inferior, or even of absolutely shoddy quality, when I still bore in the ostentatious calfskin attaché I would soon thereafter pawn for rum the sheaf of uncoordinated pages I pretended together constituted the early stages of my masterpiece but which in fact I frequently padded the number of with slipped-in pages pencil-darkened with nautili or spirals, my favorite sign, etched in to maniacal depths, and I would spread some of this refuse before me in my corner of the café and peer quizzically at the chaos I’d forged, a pen poised theatrically quill-over-pot, as if I intended to waylay or ambush the first stray thought or wandering clause to reveal even a hint of a gap in its rhetorical mail, the first error to come bungling along at the fringes of my manifesto when in fact the entire work was an error.
The attention implicit in that authorial pose was moreover an inaccurate representation of my interior life, since I was no longer concerned with my own manifesto, by this time my principal preoccupations were with, first, the possibility that at another table in this café, or elsewhere, somewhere someone else was working at a rival manifesto, working harder than I, uninhibited by some of the factors that had doomed my endeavor from the outset, and that this man was even now arranging the torrent of insight and truth that came teeming resistlessly from him before forming into regimental lines, sentences marching into paragraphs dense with indisputable logic, an onslaught against the ramparts of received wisdom behind which the complacent or successful or stupid are wont to huddle and cling, and that this man in his fervor was utterly undistracted by the thought I could never chase from my head during my working hours after rising at noon, viz., that soon—but not soon enough—the sun would have passed the position beyond which I’d be permitted to have a drink, since this was as I have noted a period of continual drink, and there were still several wretched hours stretched from late morning to early afternoon during which I’d sworn I would only work, a problem I eventually realized I could solve by simply drinking while I worked.
Of course, aboard the Turk’s bloated vessel I was no longer a continuous drunk, nor even a continual drunk. This had been the single precondition of my passage, that I leave the rot ashore to use the Turk’s own phrase, and the Turk’s initial vigilance was such that continuous intoxication was absolutely out of the question, but in fact even continual drink of the sort I had enjoyed not only during the final few days of my sanity on the island but in point of fact for most of my adult life, I cannot remember a time, amongst “friends,” hard at work, during the war, or in the subsequent deprivations of peace, as a young man with a future of some promise, if there had been such a time, never, I cannot remember a single occasion I was not either drinking deeply or in desperate need of a drink, obsessing ferociously on the looked-forward-to savor of that first cool and permeating draught, inwardly coordinating a sequence of drinks to consume, a roster I would adhere to until such fastidiousness was no longer necessary, I would resist a yearning to grimace when an interlocutor’s wit urged collegial response, I would frantically work to provide the impression I was thinking, dreaming, meditating, paying attention to something—anything—other than the taste of that impossibly distant first gulp, and if there was a time in my life when this wasn’t so, it has faded far beyond recall.
Because of the vastness of his generosity and his faith in the decency of men it required the Turk several days, actually nearly a full two weeks, to discover that someone had been pilfering liberally from the storeroom’s casks of rum, which were only onboard as a precaution—that is, as emergency bartering blocks against mutiny, or to be sold off in the event that our supplies ran short on the long voyage to New York City. However he did not hesitate to act, a brutal man, in all things swift minded, and every ounce of alcohol aboard the ship, including but not limited to the remaining nine casks of rum, and even the seamen’s grog, the fo’c’sle was ransacked, at this the men nearly did revolt, which insubordination the Turk naturally could have crushed without resorting to the promised exchange of double shares for all men who willingly parted with their flasks, in the end every ounce went over the bulwarks, inviting Dionysius to some fortunate gathering of fish, (there is a man in black with a white-painted face peering in at me through the porthole, his eyes are red flames, oh god) and perhaps the Turk expected my gratitude, perhaps I was to be thankful that he’d disposed of the casks and not me, since in taking so much as a single sip of the rot, to say nothing of several full casks I’d worked through in a manner of weeks, as was actually the case, I had indisputably reneged on our agreement, but I was not grateful, I wished it were me, I begged the Turk to hurl me overboard before those round little oases of rum floated forever out of sight, but the Turk refused, he had me brought to his personal cabin as a kind of ship arrest, he saw deep into my heart, he said, saw the kind of man I could be, refused to throw me over, no matter how hard I pounded the shipboards and wept.
The Turk proposed to finish what he’d started, he would provide for my reform, as we made our way north, toward the sole motive for our journey. I was held captive in a hold of bleak sobriety. I was driven to absolute temperance by circumstances where the Law alone had not sufficed, and now I may as well confess: sobriety has driven me mad, surely I would not have needed to compose these notes nor would I have, in a fit of insufferable clarity, found it necessary to devise a scheme for the theft of the plunder the Turk had spent the last twenty years of his life sailing the world’s seven seas vainly pursuing, sometimes all but losing the trail, relentless, the silver would be the consummation of a lifelong quest, the key to which he’d had to barter with in blood, men have died for the tattered scroll, the map I secretly perused and memorized in a fit of panic and despair the morning of the day before last, when a sudden swell required the Turk’s steady hand on deck, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly seven days.
The Turk, I knew, proposed to be like a father to me, however I rejected outright the notion of his paternity. I declined to become his adopted or substitute son, knowing well enough that the man already had any number of sons scattered round the globe, unacknowledged sons, perhaps hungry for the fatherhood they’d been denied by the obscurity of their conception, perhaps not, but surely among the formidable evidence of the Turk’s virility and brawn, there must be one more worthy of the lost father’s regard, his weathered, steady hand, his love.
I was furthermore averse to the sole condition of the Turk’s affection, as I have already discussed, his mandate being essentially that I live in hell. Should I point out that only the ruthlessness of the Turk, the extremity of his patriarchal impulse—or rather his nature, since one needed only to watch the Turk’s brisk potent strides to perceive that his Turkness was not cultivated but inborn—the Turk’s remorseless surveillance, his refusal to leave me unobserved, the first time I was ever out from his gaze I’d been locked in the cabin while he attended to the squall, evidently he did not believe it necessary to secure the map from my eyes, only the Turk prevented me from flinging myself overboard, at least this is what I have long preferred to believe.
—The only men I admire are suicides, I repeated. To port there were clouds.
—Yes, this is not a significant development in your thought, my friend, said the Turk. —Me: I have always admired the true pessimists who know the void, yet resist until the end.
—Those aren’t pessimists, I said, and a rumbling came from below, where the men, as a concession for the discarded rum, had been permitted to wrestle and box (needless to say I was advised to avoid interaction with the crew) —they’re fools, or cowards. Either they haven’t apprehended the void, in which case they are fools, or they are afraid of it, and they are cowards.
—And what is it I ask of you every evening, he asked me, frowning, —the one thing, especially what have I asked you to refrain from doing above board, in plain sight, because it is bad for morale?
—Of the two ‘I’s it’s certainly the former I for whom I bear the greater loathing. Cowardice I can accept. Only a fool doesn’t fear the abyss. On the other hand, it requires an even greaterfool to suppose he resists when in fact he simply hasn’t yet understood what he faces. You can’t resist Nothing, can you?
—Please, hand me the flask.
I refused to hand him the flask, the flask, stayed with me, I flourished the flask, which was of course filled only with water, and I reminded the Turk as the flask glinted in the low sunlight shot across the endless continent to the west that he had promised me I would retain my flask, this had been his one, his only concession.
—And yet people do, I said. —People lift their chins like so, I said, lifting my chin —andresist under their assorted banners don’t they? They congratulate themselves for the very evidence of the extent of their ignorance. What could be more repugnant than the twinkling-eyed fool with his head held high, striding around with fateful stomping footsteps, who has declined to look into the abyss, whose enlistedman’s strides are in fact taking him away from the abyss, temporarily of course, because he is too much of a coward to face what is coming? What could be more disgusting?
—You are on occasion an unpleasant man.
—In this light we can begin to examine my hatred for women. When I say “women,” I mean women generally, as a sub-species, but also individually: I’ve never once met an actual woman I didn’t absolutely detest within seconds. Fat, buxom, jolly, sly, flirtatious, wealthy, wholesome, supple, sumptuous, crass, well-cultured, pretentious, pulchritudinous: I’ve hated them all, Turk. All but one: I once knew a young girl who’d known the void, a girl standing perpetually on the brink of misery, madness, horror—but she was the exception, an absolutely rare case, we shared the most horrific nights together, nights of sheer madness and dismay,nights you couldn’t begin to imagine, I shouted, staring past the Turk at the reddening sun. —matching each other shot for shot, vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila only rarely, a dirty spirit, absolutely filthy, I’ve always felt, we were essentially engaged in a standoff, a duel matching escalating howls—
—This one you will return to, bring home to her your share, to establish a shared life?
—She’s dead. Fallen from a high rooftop. Under questionable circumstances. If she was a suicide, however, she perished repulsed by my weakness. There can be no question there.
The Turk’s eyes wandered the poop, flashing in the match flare as he lit up his pipe.
—Listen, here is a phrase I’ve always particularly loathed: resistance is futile—this phrase, doesn’t it betray a certain allegiance to resistance, to acts of resistance, isn’t there a latent wish for the non-futility of resistance, for struggle to actually mean something, as opposed to the actual case, which, granted, is that resistance is of course futile? Isn’t there a pitiful resignation to the fact but nevertheless a kind of call to arms in the phrase’s supposed pessimism? We’ll resist because we have no other choice? . . . But we do have the other choice of course: to not resist!
The Turk fixed me with his pensive gaze, he was always fixing with this very gaze, I hated the gaze, I would have murdered the gaze, not necessarily the Turk, perhaps the Turk too, but above all the gaze, the gaze alone, with its vaunted sagacity, I would have hammered that gaze to pieces, I would have drowned that gaze, but in men of the Turk’s tribe, the gaze is undrownable, indomitable, an untouchable serenity, serenity earned, you’d have to murder the Turk himself before you could get at the gaze.
—Listen, said the Turk, and I craned back to take what was left in the flask, tried to imagine a deep acrimonious draught, even spluttered as if feeling that lost heat, and the Turk fixed me with one of his gazes, this was a twinkling gaze, behind which briefly danced I imagined the fleeting image of some pair of slender legs, disrobed, wrapped around him in some smoky den of indulgence that my raw inexperience would have prevented me from knowing (though I was actually older than the Turk) (although it was true that he had perhaps frequented more dens than I) and without which I would of course be given to the kind of juvenile bleakness he dismissed my nightly fulminations as, especially as he believed I was not quite free of the grip of the rot, since to appreciate life one needed to know it, so that it followed that to denouncelife one likewise needed to know it, and I was too consumed with a passion for denunciation, enjoyed assaults on life, in a philosophical sense, crowed too readily over my rhetorical broadsides to ever know life or appreciate it, I perceived this in the Turk’s gaze as he blew smoke rings out over the lapping water and I leaned an elbow on the bulwark and watched the sun bleed into the sea:
—But what else can a man do, he asked, except resist?
—Not resist! I roared, —Resist the command to resist!
—Well but the silver.
—What about the silver?
—The silver exists. And a man must live.
—And you admire the suicides.
—Yes, I said. The suicides are our only heroes, the more ignominious, the more shameful, the more abjectly they spit on their lives, the more they shame their families, abandon their responsibilities, leave chaos in their wake, demolish the lives of those from whom they’ve been set free, I said, leaping onto a nearby spar, and swinging an imaginary cutlass through the wind.
—Who but a coward would surrender? the Turk spat.
—Who but a coward would surrender his right to surrender?
If we do find the silver tomorrow I intend to abscond with the entire cache, I’ve identified an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, uninhabited, remote, pinpointed it on the Turk’s weathered map, I will retire to my island, in the north, to a cold rocky barren land, pure desolation, a wasteland, a humanless rock, desolate, an unpeopled waste, an island, en route I will purchase provisions and make for my island where, because I am a coward, I will not kill myself, I will live out my days, I will resist the elements and survive for as long as I can: because I am a coward I will live.
Callahan’s works have appeared in The Collagist, Kill Author, The Lifted Brow, Pank, Unsaid, and Washington Square Review. His first book, The Consummation of Dirk, won the Stacherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and was published by Stacherone Books in 2013. Callahan has also written non-fiction, including a lengthy essay on Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, and David Foster Wallace for The Collagist and essays on Rick Moody and Adam Novy in The Fiction Writers Review. He grew up in Honolulu and studied fiction at Sarah Lawrence.