Friday, September 17, 2010

Crossing the Veil

My bunk was soaked with seawater. I reluctantly crawled in, pulling the thin, damp sheet over my body and recoiling as I felt the cold, soaked mattress against my skin. Everything below decks was damp, and encrusted with a thin layer of salt. Fleeing cockroaches could be caught with the eye on every surface. We had been at sea for weeks, and the vessel was taking on water. Only the ceaseless exertion of the electric bilge pump kept us afloat, our lives hung on its twelve volt little engine; made in China and available at your local Wal-Mart for $12.99.

During the day I had hauled my mattress out into the cockpit and tied it down where it could receive the blessing of the sun, and dry out. I had done this already; allow it to bake in the equatorial heat, only to be met with chilling damp as I flung my tired body down after my first night watch. The Captain had observed my previous attempt, saying nothing. Today his strained patience for my ignorance ran dry.

“It’s not going to work” He barked sharply, with an annoyed, flinty glance in my direction.

I stopped what I was doing, I had long ago learned to submit and listen to The Captain. His word was irrefutable law. He held my life in his grasp with his superior knowledge and assumed the role of God-King in our unstable, fifty-four foot little world.

“The salt in the mattress will just draw in more moisture as soon as the sun goes down, if you want it dry, you have to get the salt out of it, what you are trying to do is useless” He explained impatiently, annoyed that I hadn’t figured it out after my first attempt had failed.

I had been corrected sharply, and felt a bit foolish that I hadn’t thought it through myself, but I was surprised at how damp the mattress became, so quickly after night fell and the temperature plunged dramatically. I risked his anger with a foolish question.

“How do I get the salt out?” I winced as soon as I asked, knowing the answer half way through my question and compounding my diminished standing in The Captain’s eyes.

He smirked, “Fresh water”. It was useless. We could spare little water, and certainly could not afford enough to soak a mattress. I abandoned hope, and hauled the mattress back to my stateroom, depositing it, dejected, back on the bunk.

The ship carried two tanks of fresh water, each a hundred fifty gallons. As the potential to be at sea for months existed, none could be spared for anything but drinking. There was to be no showers and no washing, these were impossible luxuries when our lives depended on a limited supply of fresh water.

The tanks were ancient, as old as the vessel, and had spent a good amount of time on the sea floor after the ship had gone down in a hurricane. The inside of the tanks were covered in rust, but under decent conditions the water ran reasonably fresh. These were not decent conditions. The wild seas we had survived imposed a constant, violent thrashing on the vessel which had miraculously endured so far. The rust had worked its way loose and into our reservoir of salvation, fouling the water to such a degree it was undrinkable under any reasonable condition of basic survival. I could only bring myself to reluctantly drain it into my throat when I had reached a near crazed point of water starvation.

I had finished my first watch of the night. The weather was calm for once, offering a respite from my usual desperate struggle to navigate through the surging seas. I spent my time sitting in the cockpit, alternating my view between the breathlessly engrossing view of the stars, and the mystic glow of the bio-luminescence that curled into little wisps in the wake of our passing. When the third hour stuck, I went below, did my log entry, and stuck my head in The Captain's stateroom.

"Captain, time" I said softly. We had long grown accustomed to the schedule by now, but a gentle nudge was still required to rouse our exhausted bodies from slumber. The Captain shook himself awake, and pulled himself out of his bunk, climbing the companionway to take my place on watch. I stumbled my way to my berth in the dark belly of the heaving ship and threw myself into the salty, wet bed.

I lay there, tossed around on my bunk by the relentless pounding of the vessel as she was driven by the howling wind, cutting through the mid-Atlantic sea. The roar of the water could be heard through the sweating hull; beads of moisture running down, and being absorbed by my cursed mattress. I had three hours to sleep before I was woken by the gruff voice of The Captain for my second night watch.

We were heeled over to the starboard and from my position on the port-side I would often be furiously hurled from my bunk as I slept. I would wake suddenly, hanging four feet in the air, with just enough time to realize my position, and brace myself for the inevitable plunge to the floor.

The crashing motion and penetrating rumble of the passing water rendered sleep difficult, but weariness can overcome all distractions. I began to sink into sleep.

Somehow, a hidden process that is normally beyond awareness was revealed to me this night. I was fully conscious as I began to drift away, my mind alert, able to fully analyse this mysterious transition between worlds.

I lay, braced against the movement of my bunk, sinking deeper towards full sleep. As I descended, the movement lessened and the rushing clamour of the water began to sound as if I were hearing it from a distance. Fully aware, I was amazed by the sensation of approaching sanctuary from the hellish world that held me. I continued until I hung, floating alone in an endless void of pitch black.

There was nothing, only stillness and peace. I was conscious of nothing but my own thoughts which I had full control of. I had to explore this further. Turning back, I slowly crept tentatively towards ‘reality’. It began again, almost undetectable on the edge of my senses. I could barely hear the crashing sea and feel the lurching of the vessel. I continued all the way back and again felt the full intensity of sensation, even to the point of cracking an eye open to reassure myself that the world was still there.

I preferred the blackness, so carefully and easily I returned to the void, again, fully aware of all physical stimuli melting away as I made my descent. I floated for awhile, enjoying the peace. This was amazing. I felt nothing at all. There is a deep mystery here I thought, with the blunt realization that there is more to reality than the physical world. I continued to practice, making the journey a number of times.

I was in awe of what I was doing, and felt it was time to explore more. I could not sink any deeper; the black void was at the very limit. Something else was required. I knew what to do, but I could not understand it, it was beyond my power of reason.

Bracing myself, I warbled over the barrier.

With a flash of sudden, astonishing intensity, a world of full, vibrant colour created itself around me.