The Book of the Black Heart
Chapter Four: The Bo'sun's Story
"The Sea's a big fat heart," says the Bo'sun leaning over the rail of number three gun mount. He leans so largely that in the darkness of the Pacific night his chin seems to drag in the waves like a prow, but the waves are only shadow, and the illumination that casts his face into swells and troughs does not come from roiling plankton, but from a cigarette held loosely in his hand.
Behind him a hatch opens and spreads light over the steel deck underfoot. A radio blares out with the glare — in the gun shack seven sailors lie and sit, listening to some sloe-eyed siren who sings that she don't want no yo-yo, so it sounds; or pouring coffee into the big regulation cups liberated from the galley; or mulling over two of a kind against a possibly full house. The hatch swings to again, and the night closes once more around the mount.
"It was in them Oklahoma nights that I heard her pounding first," the Bo'sun says. "I guess you'll say I'm nuts to hear the sea beating under a lot of red clay. But that's the way it was. I can even remember the first night I figured out what it was there off in the distance, just whispering like, at the edges.
"I'd went upstairs early that night when my pa come home drunk. We owned a farm, or the bank did. It was the first day of the month, and ma and me knew he'd come home smashed into a buzzard's tail. He always did the day the bank payment was due. In the morning of such a day we'd all rise hard out of our beds and drag downstairs. Everything was a coat of dust. You got so you didn't notice it usually, but on these days the dust would sift in with the moonlight, I guess, through sashes and panes, and in your nose it would make a smell like rust that you couldn't wash down even with a cup of mucky coffee.
"We would rise up and go down to sit at the table, quiet, while ma made the breakfast. She would serve it, and pa wouldn't say nothing, just sit there squint-eyed and hard, thinking about the money.
"You don't raise much on a little Oklahoma farm, no matter how hard you scratch. It wasn't pa's fault, you just don't raise much. And the bank don't know nothing about wheat or corn or swine or drought, or the red dust and the wind.
"That wind. It never stopped, or almost never. In the morning it would blow from the east. Sometimes it was strong enough to lean against, and you could see the landscape blowing over from miles gone. At noon it would quit for a breather, just long enough for the sun to bake the land flat into its fields and ruts. Then it would start all over, from the west, and the countryside would blow past again, back where it came from That dirt could never settle long enough to grow anything. Even when it got wet with a good rain all you had was a foot of mud, hardpan underneath, and the mud would run off into the creeks until you got a drought and the creeks dried up. Then the wind would blow it all back up again. You can't grow nothing but weary on land like that.
"After breakfast pa would take out his wallet and begin pulling greenbacks out of it. He'd take them out one by one and slap them
down flat hard on the table. He'd look at each one before he pulled out another. Nobody would say a word. When he was done counting he'd gather them all back up, get up, stuff them in his pocket, and put his wallet back away. 'I'm goin' into town,' he'd say then, and he would leave.
"Once he was gone I'd go do the chores and ma would fix up the kitchen and the rest of the house.
"He'd be gone all day. I would have some time to myself if it wasn't a school day, so I'd spend my time out in the fields or the brush woods. I remember I had a pet horn-toad named Sam. I would gather him up and put him in my shirt pocket head down. He'd stay there that way or, if I put him in tail first, he'd look around a while and then get out and crawl around on my shoulders. I fed him flies from the barn, or put a string leash on him and let him forage on his own. I did other things to kill time, I guess, but that's the thing I remember best.
"The day would be over some time, though, and I'd make my excuses to get to bed before pa got home. My ma would nod as she sat by the kitchen stove darning or something, and it was then that I felt sorriest, for I knew she'd have to wait up till he got home, and he'd beat the shit out of her. He never did that any time but the one night a month, but I hated his pus gut for that. It wasn't for years that I figured out why she'd wait like that, just rocking and darning, till he cracked open the door and smashed her across the face with his open hand. She was a little woman, but not sickly little. She'd wait, and when he'd come in she'd look up at him scared some, but a funny glint in her eyes.
"'You done this to me,' he'd say, the night wind blowing in 'round him, making the kerosene stove flicker and smoke. 'You've bought my spirit for a pound of flesh and crucified my heart with a son. You've got this coming, you and womankind.' And he'd hit her till she laid crying on the linoleum tiles. The smell of liquor would cloud the room. And then he'd lift her and take her off to bed where he'd pound her belly against the sheets, and her dries would be different, but just as fearful. Or worse. Because now you could hear the pleasure in them.
"Then the house would settle down into the red dark, and the plains and fields would begin to whisper to the walls. In my bed my toad would settle into my side, but I would listen for the sounds of the dust riding moonlight sliding through the windows. Out of the stars the wind would begin to come up stronger — you'd know what it felt like if you tried, to be a limb of a tree creaking in the night.
"But under it all there was a strange sound, like wet things sliding over each other, and strange animals walking on the bottom of things. First far off, making a roar just under your eyelid, then slimming off, then a roar again — if you didn't listen you didn't know it was there, not with your whole mind. And a smell, a smell from way back and way down deep. And then one night I remembered that it was the sea, and I'd never rest until I saw it. Then sleep took me with my eyes stark open, and I heard my mother sigh once from her dark covers before I dropped off the quiet edge."
Tuesday, 13th. I have ignored Cara for two days. Today she has stopped trying to explain her all-day absence of two days ago and has called in the Big Gun.
I don't think she understands, and I'm certain the Big Gun doesn't. Cara thinks I am jealous, which I am not — there's no reason for jealousy. She's not my wife, so I have no formal claim on her; I have not been her lover except on one occasion, which was at her insistence, so I have no physical claim on her; and it was her idea to come here in the first place, so she has no claim on me. She may do as she pleases.
The reasons I have been ignoring her are twofold: First, she lied to me for no reason, and I have to intention of getting into the family-style hassles I have experienced with Norine for ten years. Silence is the best defense. Second, I have been sunken deeply into my books and writing furiously for the past two days, and I don't care to be disturbed in any way.
I feel a return of strength, both in my writing and in my mind. I have decided not to believe in Norine and her power over me. Were I go to bed now with Cara, I am sure I could perform like a man. I am off the Bryony Water. I am clear.
This morning the Big Gun came pulling into the dooryard in his station wagon, got out looking all clean and determined, and as soon as she had opened the door to let him in, Cara disappeared.
Rafe said, "How are you, Charles?" as he came into the dining room and sat down.
"Well enough. You?" I went back to eating my roll.
"Let's get straight to the point, all right?" He shot me a straight blue look.
I nodded. "Sure. What's on your mind?"
"You," Rafe said, rapping the table with his tennis knuckles. "Cara tells me you're up tight about her being gone so long Saturday, part of which she spent with me."
"Not true." My coffee was getting cold, so I got up to warm it with a refill. I got Rafe a cup too. "What else is bothering you?"
Rafe sighed, pushed his chair away from the table, and stretched out his legs in their nicely belled trousers. "Shit, Charles, that's a lot of crap."
"Depends on how much shit you're talking about. Might be just a little crap, or possibly even none, as in this particular case here." I sat down to sugar my coffee and stir it.
He chose to ignore the remark. "Do you want to know what Cara and I were doing?" He leaned forward again.
"Not in a million years," I said. "I come from a nice New England missionary family."
"Cara came to see me about you." I noticed he was getting a little red around the eyes. "We spent our time together talking about ways to help you." He shook his head slightly, and I saw his jaws clench. "She loves you, and she needed advice. That's what we were doing."
"And what conclusion did you reach in your conversation? What was the upshot and climax of your intercourse?" I'm afraid I couldn't help grinning.
Rafe gave a start forward, then sat back and laughed. "You're incorrigible, Charles."
"That I am. But let me say something seriously. I don't need or want your help. Nor Cara's, for that matter, and I resent her spilling everything to you."
"But you...," he began. I broke in and held up my hand.
"Look. If I've got problems, I have to solve them myself. I think I'm beginning to do that. I came here in the first place to try to do that, and Cara invited herself in to mother me. If anything, I believe she's retarded my progress. But I've had time to think and get back to what I do best these past two days, and I think I see a little sunshine at the mouth of the labyrinth."
"You do tend to get literary every once in a while, don't you?"
"I ought to do it all the time. And if you and Cara will leave me alone, I will, and I'll take care of Norine, too."
Rafe looked across the table quizzically, but I shut up and went back to eating.
"Okay," he said, getting up. "But if you'd like to talk to me at any time — "
"I know. You live on Blind Man's Hill. I'll get in touch."
He lifted a hand in farewell and took off. Cara reappeared as I was heading for the library.
"Did Rafe talk to you?"
She looked a bit forlorn standing there. "Yes," I said.
"What did he say?"
"He said he lives on Blind Man's Hill."
I have been considering, for most of the rest of the day, how to handle Norine, and I have decided that the only thing I can do to break her spell is to shoot her down once and for all, as she has shot me up so often. This is a dogfight, or dog-and-cat fight, so I have carefully worked out the letter I'll send her tomorrow: