On the small kitchen table lay a set of objects: a vial of pills that looked prescription but bore no prescription; the scuffed cover of a punk CD of unknown origin; and one of the manuals, the writing on its cardboard cover Sharpie-scrawled and illegible. Like the pills, it had arrived from her mother the previous day. Vera Schiele Obek stood over it all, eyeing the items and wondering what the coming voyage would hold.
Her mother had the unified theory of nostalgia. Her mother toured obscure universities in Europe now, and would occasionally surface in interviews on cult website and newsletters. It was a kind of fame; she had opted for this shadow academia instead of the more accepted avenues in which she’d once traveled. Sometimes Vera would see her mother’s name listed on the covers of still-extant countercultural or psychedelic publications. Sometimes it seemed to her to be the stuff of crankery. On the other hand, the pills, and their undeniable effects. That cascade of memories, of knowledge, of some other self. She was never sure what they were meant to be: a past life, a parallel life; a vision of a life she could have had had she been born into a different skin, a different nation, a different waterside.
And so Vera lived out here on the borders of the Navesink River in a kind of exile. Low-slung buildings and boat slips and the sound of automotive traffic heard from across the water. Her last boyfriend had muttered, “I hate myself sometimes,” in his sleep, and she’d parted ways with him not long after the dozenth time she’d heard it in the midst of wracked snores. She had come to this place six years earlier and had stayed quiet, temping sometimes and sometimes accepting assignments from her mother: rites to be carried out on the water to stifle incursions, to wound the pockets of nostalgia that were born, shimmering, off the coasts of cities and slowly made their way towards buildings and trafficked avenues, promising docile nightmares.
When she had been a child, when her mother’s academic life had been a more traditional one, Vera believed in undiscovered blocks behind the shopping centers they frequented. She believed in gaps and cracks and archways; that there was something mysterious to be found there. A store that sold something unavailable, its proprietor just waiting for the right customer to walk under the jingling bell by the door; or a park on the shores of a secret river. A potentially private miracle. Instead, there was this.
The routine had codified by now: the arrival of a manual and the accompanying pills. Vera would drink down one or two of the latter and wait for the memories to come, first in dreams, then to walk among in meditation. And then, on the following day, she would take the boat out to whatever corner of the water had been specified, would carry out some action, and would have the beatific taste of another’s life to walk in, parallels to carry with her and fan out like a prognosticator’s deck.
Her mother had explained it to her once, or at least had gotten there halfway. Her mother had still been developing her theories then; was still salvageably normal. Vera remembered her in her workshop, gloved hands clutching compounds, powders; distilling and combining. “These patterns,” her mother had said to no one in particular. “You can chart them, I think.” At that age, Vera never knew if she was the recipient of these lectures or simply a bystander to something else, a secret progression, a war against a concept given form.
Vera sat at the table and read the manual. Theories of overlay and nostalgia; the notion of displacement, of collective memories, of incursion. Her mother was fond of the word, and had begun using it around Vera’s twenty-first birthday to describe the blossoming, burgeoning vessels that they sought to staunch. In the manual, Vera came across numerous references to ships unearthed from sea floors and ships rebuilt and lost again. Sweden raising the Vasa; the Bounty remade for a World’s Fair long past, then sunk again; tall ships in New York Harbor in 1992. The incursions, her mother wrote, came in the shape of sailing vessels, inconspicuous in their scale. They would reach the shores of the nearest city and spill out of their forms in cryptic light. And the minds of the cities would ebb and wander and grow archaic.
From reading enough of her mother’s handwriting, Vera understood that the pills were a sort of vaccine, an isolated dose of another’s past to keep the false ships’ charm from overwhelming her. She had never actually seen one of the phantom ships; she had seen discolorations in the water, a patch of fungal orange in the Atlantic’s familiar slate-blue, more than once. She didn’t know how she would recognize one if she did see it: from the type in the manual, they were indistinguishable from the real thing save to the touch -- and to touch one was to be bonded to it. The movements of the phantom ships’ phantom crews were sometimes sickly, their forms limited -- but how to judge that against ordinary sameness, ordinary flaws?
Vera swallowed the pill. She would read the manual in its entirety tomorrow. She folded the cover back, black industrial tape serving as binding and fulcrum of the cover’s text both. In the memories summoned by the pill. she stood on the Australian coast and watched an ancient fleet approach. She was herself and she wasn’t; soon, she knew, she would gaze in a mirror, would understand more of her face and her fate. The pills made it easier to understand the influx, the mid-water structures, and the threat that they caused, but the flood of memories that accompanied them left her disoriented, unsure of herself. Sometimes, she was unable to recognize half the items in her home for days.
Vera had bought the boat from a fisherman who had told her he was trading up. She had had it for as long as she’d lived there; it was white and fully open, a shade under twenty feet; fast. She lived walking distance from its slip. It could get her as far as she needed to go, which was local; trips that took her close to Manhattan or Long Island had never been required. The chop outside Staten Island echoed off the bottom; it never failed to raise her and drop her and leave her feeling wracked, her inner ear attuned to different rhythms. It seemed a sensible barrier.
Today, that barrier would be crossed. Inside the back cover of the manual, Vera’s mother had written “near Gun Hill,” and “look for the Ironclads.” And so Vera charted a rough course: out to Raritan Bay and north, tracing Staten Island’s coastline and passing beneath the Verrazano. Up the Hudson, past skyscrapers and maritime facilities, and north. And afterwards, refueling, somewhere safe on the trip home.
The following morning, she woke early, bought a sandwich and a few bottles of water from a nearby deli, and walked towards the slip where her boat was stored. The gas tank was full; she removed the boat’s cover and let herself sit for a few minutes, savoring the newborn moments of the morning, the sun still working its way up the sky. In the boat was the bag of food, a cup of coffee, her mother’s manual, materials for stifling the incursion, and the remaining pills.
Vera sat and opened the manual to its last section, the journal entries that her mother had Xeroxed, the usual prelude for manifestoes to come. The first line to catch Vera’s eye was this: “They always embraced the trickster, even when he unhoused them in the name of chaos.” Vera nodded; she would probably read this same sentence in a year or two as part of a properly bound tome. She liked to think of herself as her mother’s first reader, though she knew that this was not the case. A peer reviewer, then. Or someone to pull her from the brink, or someone to be pushed from some kind of precipice.
Soon enough, it was time to cast off, to start the engine, and to begin her journey north with a slow exit from the slips. Not yet a lot of boats on the river, she saw. Good. It would be an unpunctuated trip, at least for the first forty-five minutes: time enough to pass Sandy Hook and head north, into the chop.
The incursion, Vera’s mother had written, was triangulating itself around two sources: the display of a restored early submarine in a Chelsea art gallery and a museum exhibit on Civil War ships elsewhere in the city. This one, she had written, was different; this incursion might be in the early phantom stage, where an echo of a form, the outline of something old and familiar, might be rising.
She rode through the swells, shuddering with each of the boat’s collisions with the water’s surface. This was always the question when dealing with water this open: should you take it fast and risk the jostling, the uneasy quarrel from side to side? Or should you go slower and risk drift, aimlessness, a loss of position? She had never tried to reach the city from her home. These broken skips over the water’s darkening surface summoned fear. Her life jacket would certainly keep her afloat, but who might see her out here, stranded, miles from any shoreline, an anonymous crier on the open water? She had never capsized, and hoped never to capsize. She feared taking on water; she feared that one of the boat’s impacts after rocketing from a wave might split the hull open, might serve the same purpose as the capsizing she so dreaded.
Irrational, she knew. Still, rationality wasn’t why she was out here. If she wanted empirical evidence, there were better places to go than to stifle phantom ships looking to wear down the progress of cities. This was where she and her mother parted ways: Vera’s mother had devised measurements and measuring instruments to calculate the degree of the incursion, its rate, its purpose. Not for the first time, Vera wondered if her mother was mad, if the pills were placebo, if this weren’t some long con being pulled on her. Not the best anxiety to have as one’s ship was tossed on the open water.
The eastern coast of Staten Island drew closer, and she turned the boat slightly, her path curving to meet its jagged peaking arch. She hated this sound: the enraged burble of the engine and that rhythmic splash splash splash as she flew over waves and crashed down, again and again, her craft now wobbling, now proceeding straight ahead. It would lurk in her mind even more than the water’s lingering dizziness, the lasting sense of unsteadiness that would come when she returned to land.
Rituals were a large component of her mother’s manuals. They seemed at once ancient and hodgepodge, an improvisational riff on some half-formed idea of what an ancient rite might have been like. There were objects that she would throw into the open water, some of them common, some requiring research, trips to out-of-the-way groceries or orders placed by mailorder. And yet: she’d been told that her trips had been successful. It was, Vera thought, a strange way of being. There was nothing to lose her focus on here, the coastline and the water beckoned. There was never a question of bringing someone along on these trips: her mother, perhaps, but her mother was far away, living in Berlin or Tallinn on some obscure fellowship and fundraising and amassing the monies needed for these sorties. And no, there was no one else.
As she passed Governor’s Island, she had a thought that this might not go as easily as she had hoped. The sky seemed an odd shade of blue, saturated and hollow. Something seemed to loom there in the north. She’d checked the forecast, and had seen no sign of storms. As the city’s financial district rose to her right, she dry-swallowed two of the pills. Soon afterwards, she needed to blink before recognizing billboards and signs on Manhattan’s coastline. English, she realized; she was translating it out of English and back into it again. Again she wondered whose memories these were, if they even were memories or simply concepts, a distillation of an identity into something more abstract. A reshaping of her mind’s chemistry.
As she passed beneath the George Washington Bridge, she took another; thirty seconds later, the incursion seemed clear to her, a blossoming where before there had been only discolorations. A change much further along: a miscolored bubble or an egg or the tip of a clay iceberg awaiting form. It loomed; she could see, as she blinked, its afterimages, roots below the water’s surface. Cracks and fissures that spread, that reached out, waiting to envelop. Vera was a thousand feet from it now. She slowed the boat; it still tossed, but in the Hudson the cacophony was less pronounced. She took the ingredients assembled to dispel the incursion in hand and waited to approach.
And then the incursion vanished. No discoloration in the water; no roots or trails beneath her. She ingested another pill, and then another, and it returned to her. Its presence could again be felt; and so she turned the boat and proceeded towards it. As she looked around the landscape, she noticed an abundance of grey; slowly, it came to her that she was now colorblind. Where once there had been red and green, now there was only an absence, a noncolor that was, in its own way, as disconcerting to her as the putrid shade of the incursion’s stain.
The documents of her mother’s that Vera had read over the years were inconclusive about the source of the incursions. There were hints that they came from some sort of collective mood. Vera’s mother sometimes suggested other eras; even parallel worlds. Not for the first time, Vera wondered about the source of the pills and the memories that they brought. All of them seemed to come together in her: the Vera she knew; the colorblindness; the other languages that now swam through her mind. A delegation that made an outline around her, and a fluctuation that made that outline shudder.
Once again, the incursion vanished; once again, Vera swallowed a pill and waited for it to reappear, and for something else to follow it and live in her mind. This time, it was memories: a city block with roots rising from the pavement, and a child walking along those streets in early winter. Certain buildings resembled Astor Place; others seemed displaced from the streets around her own home. It was a new city or it was a lost city or it was a false city or it was something remaking itself, something assembling itself, something in the process of becoming. Or the landscape was overtaking her. Or she was being re-entered in the world, that space she once occupied revamped; she thought briefly of home, and four distinct front doors flashed through her mind.
Before her was the incursion. Fifty feet away it loomed, then flickered; another pill brought it back into focus. Vera saw it starting to ghost, saw its essence start to lift, beginning to approximate a ship’s hull, the brackish water lifting like a thin and awful mist. It would have been the hull of something huge, she saw. A tall ship or something stout and military or a fishing boat returning from northern waters. She was at twenty feet now; she pulled the materials from her bag and pitched them at the incursion’s center.
The incursion ossified for a moment: those reaching walls, the harbored structures that reached towards the sky suddenly becoming white, briefly solid, then crumbling into a saltish ash and falling back towards the water. It was done; her elements expired, her pills consumed, the manual no longer needed.
There was a slip on her way back, near Sheepshead Bay. She took the boat there slowly; there would be fuel, or there would be somewhere to stop and rest, somewhere to set foot on solid ground and abate the rocking, the constant rocking that pervaded her body. She saw it, that familiar space with Coney Island’s midway in the distance; a series of moorings and ladders and piers, and she recognized the space where her craft would go. She let it drift in, momentum bringing it to the dock; her hands found ropes and tied the boat loosely, foregoing familiar knots, and left it there to rest or to drift. She walked on the pier and she took the piers onto paved-over soil and she stood there in New York, feeling at home; she glimpsed her building not far away and walked towards it; and if someone had called out to her the name Vera Schiele Obek, she would have paid no attention. The day’s journey was over and the sea’s pull on her faded, ebbed, had never been.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His fiction and criticism has recently appeared in The Collagist, Hair Lit, Vol.1, The Fanzine, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.