The Calm

By Doug Muder

The sails had not stirred in thirteen days. During that time the sky had been filled with high clouds of a grayness so uniform that the position of the sun was often a matter of some debate among us. The stars we had not seen for some time; they were lost to us during both the calm and the several days of storm that had preceded it.

We rode high in the water. Pirates had claimed our cargo ten days out of port. We did not meet them in a strait, a narrowing of the sea lanes or any other common place, but in the wide ocean. They must have been in transit from one hunting ground to the next, or perhaps headed toward some friendly port for holiday. Our meeting was no doubt due to some combination of their good luck and our bad.

Though they took our cargo and any valuables we had on our persons, they left us our lives and provisions. I cannot say why they did not kill us, but they left our provisions simply because they had no place for them. When our Captain (under some duress) had conceded our food and water, they reacted as if he had offered them our rats and barnacles. Their holds and decks were full, and another barrel might have been as effective as a cannonball in sinking them.

When the storm came half a day later it was our consolation to think of them in that overloaded boat. The black clouds appeared on the horizon in the exact spot where their ship had gone behind it, and the storm reached us with frightening speed. They no doubt threw our cargo over at twice the pace that we had loaded it onto them, and they may well have delivered some of it to the bottom personally. Or so we hoped.

We treated the first day or two of calm like a gift from Heaven. We mended the storm damage as best we could, and made restitution for whatever meals and naps the rough weather had taken from us. The still water made for good swimming and some even went so far as to bathe. But already on the second day we began to mourn our valuables. The cargo was a loss common to us all and we felt well revenged for it, but each of us had in addition lost things whose value was unique, things made or received or bartered or stolen with our own hands. No one spoke of it, but that second afternoon a mood descended on us that was as gray and dismal as that unbroken sky.

It was bothersome that we could not fix our position. Worse, by the third day there was very little we could do at all beyond keeping a lookout and hoping for a glimpse of blue sky or familiar stars. Several decks of cards had survived our travails and in our idleness we began to gamble in earnest. Not, of course, that we had anything to gamble for beyond the marks we made on pieces of paper. As the windless, starless days went on this fledgling currency experienced an ever-accelerating inflation. Some of the less fortunate among us came to have debts that a duke would have been pressed to cover, while others would have ranked with the richest men in England, could any bank have been found willing to accept at face value the notes they held. Among ourselves we accepted them as if the queen herself had signed each one. No man sat out a game for lack of credit.

In the second week our arithmetic began to fail us and the cards lost their fascination. We ate little and swam not at all. We forgot the order of our watches, for it made no difference. Each man woke and slept at irregular intervals. Any hour of day or night would find half or more of us sitting on the deck, staring at some indeterminate place in the sky. We told whatever stories we knew, some that had happened to us and some that we heard from strangers in port. We talked of storms and weather, of women and their jealous husbands, of whales and shipwrecks, of monsters with tentacles and scales, of pearls the size of fists, of cities inlaid with gold, of naked black sorcerers with fearsome powers, of mermaids, of ghosts, of pink-cheeked girls back home with smooth, white arms. There was no end to it. The man speaking as you dozed might or might not be talking again when you woke, and if in between you dreamed him saying something different than the others had heard, well, what of it? We listened to each other’s stories as we had taken each other’s markers. And if there was no Bank of Truth that would honor them in the unlikely event that we returned to civilized society, what did it matter?

One crewman, a dependable sailor of no particular distinction, said nothing. It was not noticeable at first, as each of us passed in and out of the conversation at intervals. But as he kept his same location on the deck, day after day, moving only for the basic necessities, it eventually became apparent that no sound ever came from that location. Perhaps it was the Captain who noticed first. He often occupied a neighboring plank (the distinctions of rank having vanished early in the second week) and watched him at times with a peculiar intensity, like a man examining a puzzle that had only a few pieces missing, but whose image was still not discernable.

At length there was a gap in the speaking, as one tale ended and another did not immediately begin. There was a story I had been burning to tell for some time, it seemed like several hours, but each time I had opened my mouth I had discovered that someone else had already begun to speak. So it was this time, as the Captain began just before me. He spoke to the silent crewman, but loudly enough that we could all hear.

“Don’t you have a story, Foster?” he asked. “You seem to be a man who’s seen a bit of the sea in his day. Why Spines there only started shaving Tuesday, and he’s had more than one adventure to tell us.” There was a general chuckle at Spines’ expense. “Surely you’ve seen a thing or two that might hold our attention.”

“Perhaps not,” said Foster. His tone was polite and even a bit wistful, as if he wished he did have a story. It surprised me to realize how little I knew about the man and how seldom I had been curious about him. I knew little beyond the fact that he liked the predawn watch, the lonely one that the rest of us were only too glad to leave to him. And yet, as I now had occasion to look at him closely, there seemed to be a great sadness about him, something well beyond and of longer standing than the melancholy that held the rest of us. It seemed unlikely that a man could arrive at such a state without there being some story behind it.

The Captain apparently had a similar intuition, for he continued to question. “I find that hard to believe,” he said. “Why, I could swear I’ve heard a couple of good stories about you myself. You’ve sailed around a bit, seen some strange places, met some interesting people. I even heard you were lost for some time on an island. You must remember something.”

Foster sighed. “Memories,” he said. “Yes, I do have memories. Of places. Of people. Yes, one or two of them might hold your attention.”

“Well, then. Why don’t you tell us about your island, then? Were there people on it?”

Foster looked around the group as if he hoped someone else would interrupt and spare him the effort. “An odd sort of people,” he said. “Not like the English, not at all, other than their appearance. White-skinned, they all were, and their hair ran sandy to red. Their island had a city on it, and fields that they farmed with plows and tame animals. I think they must not have cared about the sea or the rest of the world, else you’d all know about them the same way you know about the Portuguese or the Genoans. They had smiths and tradesmen enough to build good ships if they’d had a mind to.”

“That doesn’t sound so odd,” said the Captain. “Except for none of the rest of us having heard of them.”

“They had a peculiar religion,” Foster continued. “Or rather, a religion with one peculiar belief: They believed that each soul lives only for a single day, and that each day a man has a new soul. Or rather each body has a new soul, I guess they’d say if they spoke our language. There’s no arguing with them about it. They all know that some days a man is brave and honest, and some days he’d like to slit your throat for half a crown. To say that all those souls should be bound together and saved or damned as a block, well, it’s a bit too much for them to swallow. Condemn the soul of a child for what a man did on his deathbed? Condemn the summer’s industrious farmer right along with the winter’s drunkard? Why you might as well take whole villages and judge them all together. At least that’s the way the Dayborn see it. “

Some of the crew chuckled. “It’s a fine religion for the likes of me,” one said. “Do my damnedest all day long and have a clean new soul in the morning.”

His neighbor punched his arm. “You’d be in Hell by sunrise and some other poor soul would have your broken-down old body. Put the fear of God into you, it would. Thinking you’d meet your Maker come bedtime.”

“It made them different,” Foster said. “Take a man who sets a few coins aside for another day. We might say he’s thrifty, or even miserly, a penny-pincher. The Dayborn think he’s generous, donating that money to the soul that will be in his body tomorrow. Taking care of your karu, they call it. Your body-sharers. It sounds just like maru, which is their word for your loved ones. That’s how they look at it. Your karu are like your family only closer. You worry about them. You look out for them. You expect them to get you out of trouble. You stick up for them. You don’t want to do anything to ruin their good name.”

“I’ve a name or two for my karu,” another said. “Look at the mess those filthy bastards have got me into.”

Several of us laughed. But Foster began to look over our heads, out at the horizon. “Far and away the strangest thing about the karu is how fragile it all is.” His voice became softer, and he spoke as if he were talking to himself rather than to any of us. But the sea was flat as a brass mirror and so still that his voice might have carried out to the horizon and back. “You might think that you’re just who you are and there isn’t much to be done about it. But to the Dayborn the karu is like a club or like a church. You can lose your membership. You can fall away. If you do you become one of the naikaru, the selfless ones, the disconnected souls. You have your memories, but they all seem to have happened to someone else. You remember them like you remember watching a play or hearing a story. Or like those dreams you have where it’s not clear which character is you. The naikaru live with no plan or purpose. Many are angry or morose. Some sit and do nothing. Some drink themselves to death. Some become like children and are pleasant enough to be around, but if their maru don’t look after them they’ll soon die. Once in a great while a naikaru becomes a saint. Because he has no karu to worry about, he can give his full care to anyone who crosses his path. There are a few stories about famous naikaru-saints, but some people thought they were myths. Nobody I remember had ever met one.”

This time there was no joke to fill the pause. The Captain kept looking at Foster as if we were not there, as if he had just seen another piece fall into place, and he wanted to look again to see if he could recognize the picture now. Foster continued without prompting, seeming to take no notice of our reactions. “Most of the Dayborn live in terror of becoming naikaru,” he said. They wear karubahns around their necks all day and night. They’re like charm bracelets–big amulets with symbols inscribed to mark the major events in life. Your karubahn tells where you were born and who your parents are, any famous ancestors you’ve had, your maru. It tells where you’ve lived and what notable deeds you’ve done. It describes your character—not as you wish it was but how you think it really is.”

“Every morning begins with a ritual.” Foster got down on his knees and mimed holding something the size of a saucer in front of his face. “A man kneels and reads his karubahn. In this way he calls on the spirit that unites his karu to be with him during his day of life, to help him uphold the responsibilities taken on by his karu, and to be a credit to their name.”

“I’d have somebody make me up a fake one,” someone said. “Or I’d steal one. One that said I was rich and handsome and smart as a whip. One that said I could outdrink, outfight, and outscrew any man for a hundred miles around.”

Foster had no expression on his face. “You’d give up your body to a karu that doesn’t even exist,” he said sadly. “A few flaws are a small price to pay to have a karu. If a man’s karubahn says his karu is petty and untrustworthy, better he should be so than risk becoming naikaru. If he does something against his karubahn, his maru will scold him, for they will miss his karu if he should lose it. And a man who steals a karubahn is treated as a murderer, for that will likely be the end of the karu it was stolen from.

“At the end of his day of life the Dayborn soul prepares to die. He takes out his karubahn again and speaks to it. He describes what he did in his day of life, makes a new mark on the karubahn if something important has happened, and asks that his karu forgive him his faults and think well of him. When a Dayborn body dies, its karubahn is placed on its grave, like a tombstone. His maru can visit and read the marks.”

He looked around the circle, and though his eyes met each of ours in turn, there was no recognition in them. It was as if we had not sailed together all these months, as if we were a congregation of strangers to whom he was about to reveal a great secret. “And if a karu is truly great,” he said, “its karubahn will be copied and the karu will be reincarnated in the body of a criminal. For the Dayborn think it a waste to kill a perfectly good body simply to punish an evil karu. The karubahn of the criminal is destroyed, and the body is cleansed for three days. Then a noble karu is chosen for the body, and the future souls that inhabit that body are taught to invoke the new karubahn. It is a difficult process. Sometimes it must be done many times before it is successful.”

“So you murder somebody and all they do is take away your charm bracelet?”

“They take away your body. Without a karubahn there is no ritual. Without a ritual the spirit of the karu will not descend. The future souls will either incarnate a new karu, or they will be naikaru.”

There was silence. The word “naikaru” seemed to hang in the air as if he were still saying it. The Captain spoke softly, with an unexpected tenderness. “The Dayborn. You were shipwrecked. You washed up on their shores with nothing. No home. No food. No relatives. No karubahn. You stole from them and they caught you.”

Foster began to look quite uncomfortable. “There are such memories,” he said.

“They took you for a naikaru. They stole your body and put a karu of their own in it.” Pain showed in Foster’s face, and he looked around nervously without responding. The Captain continued, “How did you get off the island? How did your body come to be here? You must remember.”

His voice began to waver, and he answered in short bursts, as if he did not trust himself to speak longer. “One day a boat came. English. One of the sailors knew this body.”

The Captain went on as if he were telling the story. “They stole you back. Thought they were doing you a favor. You didn’t tell them.”

Tears began to roll down his face. “The karubahn said, ‘I am clever. I am devious. I am secretive. I make all things work to the advantage of my karu.’ The body had memories. It knew how to be English. There were reasons not to tell.”

“So you aren’t Foster.” The crewman closed his eyes to hold back the tears. He shook his head slowly. “Who are you?” the Captain asked.

“I am no one.” He paused and took several deep breaths. The tears continued to flow. “A pirate at the bottom of the ocean has a karubahn. I have a body with memories. A karu that spanned centuries has ended. I am no one.”

He began to sob openly, holding the spot on his chest where the karubahn had hung, rocking back and forth slowly like a child. No longer devious, no longer secretive, no longer an English sailor or pretending to be one, he sat on the deck and cried. No one spoke for a long time. The Captain looked at the horizon while his fingers absent-mindedly searched his empty watch pocket. I looked down into my lap and saw my right hand gently holding my naked left ring finger. If we die out here, I wondered, who will find us? How will they know who we were?

At length there was silence, even stillness. I tried to remember what story I had been so eager to tell. Tried to remember whether it was true or not. Whether it had happened to me or to someone else. Somewhere behind the veil the sun was setting. The distinction between the gray sky and the darker gray ocean was fast vanishing. Maybe I would tell my story now. Maybe I would sleep. Maybe I would continue sitting on the deck, staring out into that maddening, endless calm.