A Guide for Lost Sailors

Taurus rears his horned head, the Seven Sisters huddle together, one of them invisible, and Queen Cassiopeia still sits on her throne in the sky, spending half the night upside down as punishment for once being too boastful. I know they do, still, even down here, where I haven’t seen them in God knows how long. I know too that my dear Orion still stands proud and maybe, sometimes, he thinks of me.

Like Cassiopeia, I am being punished, and I have all the rest of my days, it seems, to contemplate my failure. Unlike the queen, I will do so unseen and uncelebrated, and unlike her, I will disintegrate and be lost one day. Men have paid with their lives for my negligence; my punishment is a comparatively small price.

I have lost many things over the years, forgotten so much that is probably of vital importance, but I can still remember the carpenter who made me, a bespectacled man with a penchant for storytelling and the biggest hands you’ve ever seen. He liked to speak to his projects, for he knew we spoke back to him in our own way, and it must have been he who first told me that the sailors would be counting on me, believing in my power. I was to bring good luck to the voyages, keep my men safe and bring them home whole, to shelter them from storms and serve as a guide and a comfort to them when they were lost. He told me it was because I had a spirit in me; I’ve never known if he meant there was a ghost or demon or fairy trapped inside me, or if he just meant I had a strong personality.

I do remember vividly the day he told me where I was going. It was an oppressively hot summer day, and the sawdust mixed with his sweat. He wiped his forehead with his hand, which didn’t help much, and then suddenly he clapped me on the shoulder. I was nearly there, he said. Once I was completed, I was to be mounted on the prow of a trading ship called the Opulentia.

The carpenter did the ship’s name proud. He gave me a gilded crown and wreath at my throat, an abundance of tumbling curls, a plump mouth, and an enormous bare bosom and ample curves, and so I went through my life accustomed to the stares of men. Even the mild carpenter would good-naturedly give me a light slap where my rump should be as he walked into his workshop in the morning, and later, after I was on the ship, one of the crew who had had too much to drink tried to climb out onto the prow one night to cup a hand around my breast. He lost his grip before he reached me, though, and tumbled overboard. Another crewmember raised the alarm and they somehow managed to haul the poor soaked man back on board, miraculously unharmed. You can imagine the commotion. The captain had him flogged on deck the next day as punishment, but even as the lash came down upon him, I could have sworn he raised his head to wink at me.

I never minded their advances. I learned to enjoy a lewd joke like the best of the sailors, and swear (if only they could hear me) with as much fervor. And if one of them should make a comment about my breasts or a suggestion of what he’d like to do with me, I learned to pout my big lips at him coyly, knowing that the men were under my protection, and their bawdiness was all in good fun.

I even learned to get used to the constant pounding of the waves against my face, though in time it wore away much of my wreath and crown. I miss the feeling these days; it isn’t the same to have the sea envelop you until you don’t notice as it is to greet the waves head-on, part from them, and come together again even more furiously.

Do not imagine that because my human form ended at the hips where it joined the prow, that that was the extent of my domain. I was part of the ship, and likewise, the entire ship was connected to me. I could feel its every motion, everything that happened on board: tremors in the rigging and ripples in the sails, the creak of the masts, the slow, labored rotations of the ship’s wheel, the cold slosh of water as the decks were swabbed. I could see everywhere, and I knew everything as a part of myself. I could see the flogged man wink at me; I could feel cargo shifting in the belly of the ship.

For many years, I served the Opulentia well. Business was good, and I brought the ship all the luck I could muster. I did have power, I discovered. I could sense the ship, sense where it was weak and will those parts to brace themselves against a storm. I could feel when we drifted ever so slightly off course, and influence the ship to steady and not stray. I could sense an argument brewing between members of the crew and help their tempers to ease, or, if not, I could cause small, insignificant accidents for them to deal with, to distract them from quarreling. I cannot say how I know that it was I who did these things, only that I felt something shift as I urged the pieces of the ship to fall neatly into place, the mechanisms to run smoothly, the course to stay true.

I enjoyed the time we spent at anchor as much as the time we spent at sea, watching the people scurrying about on land, so much more diverse and unusual than the crew I had become accustomed to, and so varied, even, from harbor to harbor. I listened to them haggle, gossip, and argue in many languages, exchange many kinds of currency, and sometimes dance and celebrate and tell stories of all sorts. While the sailors took their leave, I listened, and learned what I could.

One autumn, we were anchored in port, a child onshore pointed and tugged at her father’s coat, asking about me, who I was, where I had come from, what I was doing there.

He thought for a minute, and, grinning, said, “She was once a common woman who took a job working as a ship’s figurehead. But the shipbuilder whose job it was to mount her on the front of the ship fell madly in love with her. He gave her a pretty crown and a wreath and, as a token of his love, stored his own heart on board with her, knowing she would keep it safe.”

“And then what happened?”

“Well, as these things sometimes go, she wound up falling in love with the captain a month into the voyage. She let the shipbuilder’s heart fall overboard and sink to the bottom of the sea. The ship has had nothing but good fortune ever since, but somewhere, that shipbuilder roams the world alone, doomed forever to remain a heartless man!” He waggled his fingers at her, and she shrieked happily.

No one else was on board at the time to hear the story, but I listened appreciatively. The man was a talented storyteller, to have come up with the idea so quickly, and he spoke to his daughter with such enthusiasm that I sailed away almost believing his story myself.

Those were the good years. We passed across oceans, sometimes as though we were flying. People pointed and cheered to see us pull into port with our cargo. And I continued to do my best to bring good luck to the ship and all on board, because, I found, the sailors really did have faith that I would.

One winter, early on, we encountered a terrible storm. The men were on deck shouting and grunting and pushing and pulling, and I was straining too, trying with all my might to feel around, seek out the bits that were coming loose, the direction we were meant to be pointing, feeling them out, trying with everything I had to right them as well as I could with only my will, as walls and walls of water came slamming down on me.

We made it through that storm intact. It wasn’t the first we faced, and it wouldn’t be the last, but I remembered that one in particular because of something that happened afterward. We’d made it safely into the harbor, and as the crew disembarked, a cabin boy turned his eyes up to look at me, and smiled.

“Thanks for getting us through that, my girl,” he said. “It’s good to be home.” And as I watched, he raised up his hand and saluted me.

The sailors liked me, and I’d come to feel I belonged with them, but I’d never received so touching a gesture from any of them before. I felt marvelous for weeks afterward, having realized how truly they, or at least this cabin boy, believed in me.

While we were at sea, there was activity on board at all hours of the day and night, men joking and singing and working and fighting, and so I could never exactly be what you would call lonely. They were good men, and I was fond of every one of them. Many nights though, there was no one to listen to me in the way I needed. Affectionate though they were, the sailors never learned to quite understand me. That was why, at some point, I started talking to the stars.

They’re a spirited bunch, I heard myself say to the sky one night, But sometimes…

I didn’t have to finish before I felt, in the same way that I could feel the presence of the ship, that something in the stars was listening. And so it began.

I do not remember who it was who taught me the myths about the constellations, only that it happened a long, long time ago. Perhaps the carpenter knew somehow, and told me the stories, once, or maybe I heard them in a harbor somewhere. I do not think it could have been one of the sailors. They knew a great many tales, of course (most of which I enjoyed immensely but would have made a frailer woman blush), but they were not the types to be interested in anything the ancient Greeks might have had to say. They knew all the constellations by heart, but were concerned mainly with using them to calculate latitude and longitude, to find their way among the waves and sometimes to think of home.

Some parts of the sky listened to me better than others, or so it always seemed, and it helped to know that each part had its own story. If I had known nothing about the myths, I might never have come to know Orion, to really know him. I might never even have known that he was a man, let alone a hunter, though I’m sure I would have admired his beauty, even without knowing what he was.

I have spent my life around coarse, burly men, sailors and laborers and hardened, weathered souls. I saw something of them in Orion, though I’d never met a hunter before, unless you count the odd fisherman or whaler here and there. That was a comfort, that he was something familiar among the stars which, admittedly, could seem so utterly alien sometimes. But he was more than any of the living men I had known. He was attuned to everything. He could hunt anything. Unlike the sailors, he relied on nothing and no one for luck. He was so powerful, and so very independent, it seemed. And yet I also sensed that somehow he wasn’t.

He was different not only from the men I’d met but also from the other constellations as well, so that I found myself longing to speak to him in a way I’d never wanted with any of the others. He was the boldest I’d ever seen, so prominent, so proud, his body straight and square, his belt teasingly askew, bisecting him brightly.

I am not a timid one, lord knows. I’ve spent too much time around sailors for that. But even so, it took me what must have been an age to get up the courage to speak to him.

You’re like me, aren’t you? I whispered, worried that perhaps I was being too forward. You’ve been fixed in place by someone, and steered around without a say in where you go. But people count on you to be where you are.

A cloud passed over the star that was his right shoulder, so he seemed to half-shrug, but I could tell that he agreed. I know what it means to have limited means of communication, and so I am perceptive when it comes to these things; I knew how to understand him. I grew bolder after that, and soon I was pouring out secrets of the ship, confiding wishes. It wasn’t long before I began talking to him every night.

It pains me to remember that that’s when the trouble must have started, for the more time I spent mapping out the sky in my own way, the less time I spent attuned to the needs of the ship. I was falling in love with the hunter, but I’m certain that on those nights I spoke to him, if I had paused to listen, I would have sensed the evidence of my neglect, I would have noticed certain elements of the ship’s little world starting to go ever so slightly awry.

A minor fire broke out in the mess, but the cook put it out quickly before it could do any real damage. A number of thefts took place on board, and a cabin boy was wrongly accused and whipped. I took no notice of any of it. I was gazing upward.

Orion played hide-and seek with me behind the clouds, some nights. When he was dimmer, I asked what was bothering him, though I usually couldn’t discern the answer, even perceptive as I was. When he was at his brightest, I rejoiced. Sometimes I sang to him, songs I had learned from the sailors.

A poorly-tied knot in the rigging went unnoticed until it came loose while one of the crew was holding onto it, and he plummeted down onto the deck, breaking both his legs but thankfully not his neck. I barely registered the sound he made when he fell.

Of course, Orion was only in the sky during the autumn and winter months, and when he was away, I kept myself busy. I’m sad to say that by then I had fallen into bad habits, had grown addicted to the skies, and even when he wasn’t around, I was careless about the ship. Instead, sometimes I tried to strike up a friendship with Sagittarius, or made an effort to talk to the Gemini, though I have always found them somewhat tiresome. I did my best to remain on peaceful terms with the scorpion who had killed Orion, who had been placed on the opposite end of the sky to avoid any further bloodshed. All the time, my crew labored and shouted and sang to pass the time, and I waited anxiously for winter to return.

Around the time of my second winter with Orion, we had a new captain aboard the Opulentia, and he made himself almost immediately unpopular. Even I could see how terribly inept he was, and he had a habit of refusing to be proven wrong, no matter what. He periodically took it upon himself to discipline the crew harshly, far too harshly, so that the most minor infractions were dealt with as though they were matters of fatal importance, and then he would slide into long stretches during which he seemed to give up on discipline altogether. He bungled even the simplest tasks, on many occasions. It was no help that at the same time, we had a sudden outbreak of typhus on board.

I should have heard the grumbling on board, felt the tension, the tempers beginning to run high. I should have felt that something was off, and worked to correct it. And failing that, I should at least have seen the sickness and the injustice there on the surface, which anyone with half a brain would have noticed. But I didn’t. By that time I was somewhere else entirely.

The constellations, I’m certain, are proud of their own myths, even those that end in punishment. They’re proud to have a story, proud to have everyone know they were immortalized by the gods, and why. They are, overall, a proud bunch. Perhaps that’s what I always liked about them. And I was only too happy to learn their stories, to see them more clearly. Every myth I knew brought me closer to the sky.

One very clear night, the waves calm and the crew quiet, I told my beloved that I had my own myth, too. I told him the story, the story of a man who lost his heart and the ship that carried it away, the story a father had invented about me to please a little girl. It was a simple story of humble origins, and not even a real one, but still it was my own myth, and so I could think of nothing more intimate, more precious, that I could have offered him.

It isn’t true, though, I said to him when I had finished retelling it. The carpenter was a kind man, a good man, and he was fond of me, but we were never in love. And I don’t love the captain, either. I only love you.

It was the first time I had ever told him that, and from the way he sparkled, I could see that he was pleased.

Yes, I loved him. I spent a week daydreaming after that. I loved him, and I was an utter fool, so ignorant that I didn’t sense the disaster coming until one of the crew told me about it directly.

I was staring dreamily out across the water when he approached. He’d clearly been drinking, and at first I thought he’d try to climb out and reach for me, like the sailor who had once fallen overboard. But he merely staggered over to the side, leaned there, and looked at me with bleary, unfocused eyes.

“ ‘S all set now,” he slurred. “We had…a secret meeting. Tomorrow night we’re rid of the bastard.” He stumbled forward, and righted himself. “Y’ won’t tell him, girlie, will you? ‘Course not. So tomorrow, we take the ship, and the bastard captain…” He bared a set of yellow teeth. “Later we can say the fever took him.”

It was only then that I came to my senses, looked around, and discovered just how horribly wrong everything was aboard the ship. We were off-course, the crew was seething, and with a sickening feeling, I realized it had gone too far for me to be able to work any of my little tricks, too far for me to do anything, anything at all.

And so it happened as he said. In the middle of the night, the crew armed themselves. They broke into the captain’s cabin and dragged him out, bleary-eyed. They set about taking over the ship.

If I had thought of it, perhaps I could at least have done something to make the mutiny succeed more smoothly, so that we could have made it safely to dry land. But, seeing the chaos, I panicked, I tried frantically to fix every tiny problem I spotted at the last minute, and I suspect I only made things worse. I caused small obstacles to fall in the way of the mutineers as they made their way around the ship, to impede them; it only made them angrier. I tried to bolster the courage of those who opposed the mutiny; they were beaten or tied up or laughed at, and one was killed. I thought perhaps some rough waves or a deviation from our course would serve to distract the crew from their madness and force them to focus on the good of the ship; they paid no mind, and we only spun further out of control.

They couldn’t agree on what to do with the captain. Some wanted to put him adrift on a raft, others thought he should be killed without further thought. In the end they decided to lock him up, and in a last attempt to make the mutiny falter, I tried to make it harder for them to find a place to imprison him. They couldn’t locate keys, or found that there was no space, and in the end, in an act of complete idiocy, they chose to lock him in the cargo hold. I should have seen it, though by that point everything was out of my control. It so happened that on that voyage we were transporting, among other things, several kegs of gunpowder.

The captain had many shortcomings, but he was not entirely brainless. He knew how unlikely it was that the crew would let him live. In the end, I suppose he turned out to be made of stronger stuff than any of us expected. Without troubling to light a flame, he stumbled around in the dark, fearful but determined, until, with his hands, he found where the kegs were stored. It did not take him long to make up his mind.

The first mate, far enough from the explosion to survive it, shouted a warning as though he thought it would help, but the fire spread quickly and he was too late. The smoke blocked out the sky.

Oh yes, I always felt the ship’s every motion: the pounding of steps on the deck, the groan of the berths as the men who weren’t on watch tossed in their sleep, the echo of voices. When the ship split, and the main mast tumbled I felt every moment of the splintering and burning and every last breath that was drawn. I felt the wood crumbling to ash in places and the remaining parts tipping nauseatingly, and a tremendous force sucking us downward, and the bodies sliding over the planks.

Time does not pass on the bottom of the sea, except in increments of decay. I have seen the bodies of men become scatterings of bone, and the bones become overgrown with green-brown scum, and the scum eaten off by whatever creatures are willing to venture down this far. I don’t know how much is left of me, whether I have any semblance of a face or whether anyone would recognize me as one who was once supposed to watch over a ship, who was meant to serve as a guide for lost sailors, and who so devastatingly failed in the end.

You may say that the mutiny was the crew’s fault, not mine. You may say that the captain was the one who set off the explosion, not I. The fact remains that they believed I would bring them in to port safely, and I did not. I could have found a way, I don’t doubt it, to ease their disputes if only I had seen the trouble in time, but I was too focused on a love farther away, a love that could never be anything more than stolen whispers in the night.

And the worst of it? I haven’t atoned. I hardly ever think of the crew, though their bones lie before me. I have forgotten how their songs go, their faces have faded, and my memories of them seem like something from another life: the drunk man who fell from the prow trying to reach me, the cabin boy who thanked me at the end of a stormy voyage, the last captain’s bumbling attempts to keep order, a midshipman who played a wooden flute, a first mate who liked to whittle whenever he had a spare moment. I do not mourn them as I should. No, in spite of everything, I still mourn only the loss of Orion, who I have not seen in so long, who I can still picture, every point, every feature, as though he were here with me on the seafloor. And so I fail my men yet again, and so I rot.

Beneath the ocean, the underside of the surface billows like a blanket and everything is silent. The water wears away at you so slowly that you don’t even feel it, most of the time. Time does not pass, and so I cannot say how long I’ve lain here, how long before now, as something large breaks the surface above.

Suddenly, I find myself bound up by heavy cords. With a terrible gurgling crunch, I feel myself separate forever from what is left of the ship, a sharpness and then a deadness where once there was a presence, however decayed. There’s a distant shout of voices, and they must have come for the ship. Someone has discovered me.

Whoever they are, I don’t know whether they’ll see fit to save me, slap on a fresh coat of paint and carve me back into place, or whether they’ll just see an old, weathered piece of wood to be tossed onto the fire. You know, I won’t mind. I’ll blaze in brilliant, unexpected colors if they do, and maybe they’ll clap, holler, sing and tell stories, their children will gasp in amazement, and they’ll talk about that night for years to come.

The cords groan and I am rising, up, up, abandoning the bones of the crew for the final time. I am rising, the stifling sea blanket growing nearer, and when I break through it there will be one less barrier between me and the sky. If I burn, I’ll rise higher still, the smoke carrying me upward through everything, and, the carpenter’s work undone, I’ll make my way, formless, through the air, to blow and drift where I will, at last.