The Boatmaker: An Excerpt

John Benditt

BG-Excerpt-Boatmaker-1 copy

Chapter 1

The man of Small Island is dreaming of a wolf. The wolf has blue fur and green eyes, eyes unlike any the man has ever seen in waking life. The boy, really, because in the dream he is a boy again: eight years old, with skinny legs and short pants. Just the age he was when his brother went into the sea and never came back.

In his dream, the boy walks toward a big tree standing by itself in a clearing not far from the sea. On Small Island nothing is very far from the sea. The tree is an oak, one of the tallest on the island. The wind blows hard on Small Island most of the year, and not many trees grow to be tall. Above the boy’s head, oak leaves rustle in a light breeze. Everything else is quiet; no insects or birds are singing. It’s high summer, the time of afternoon when the sun stands still and everything hushes. Even the sea.

The boy walks to the spot where his brother is buried. Awake, he has never come to this place. He refused to come to the funeral, a tiny gathering that included only his mother, a few of her relatives and the pastor. His father stayed away, drunk for three days. His mother insisted on his brother being put into the earth here and not in the little cemetery, overgrown with stones, where all the other dead of Small Island are buried. He doesn’t know why she wanted this. Many things are mysterious to him—and nothing is more mysterious than whatever was between his mother and his brother.

His brother went into the sea and did not come back for three days. On the third day, the sea decided it had had his brother long enough and returned his body gently to a rocky beach not far from this oak. The boy is not sure he wants to see where his brother is buried, and he moves slowly but is unable to stop. He is small and thin, and with each step his boots weigh more. As he approaches the tree, he feels as if he is lifting the entire island with every step.

His brother’s stone is a small rectangle facing the sky between gnarled, polished roots. He moves toward it, helpless. In daylight he doesn’t feel this way. In daylight he is a man of Small Island, with a man’s tools, a man’s drink. But in the dream the flat stone seems magnetized, and he moves toward it step by step, with no will of his own. Extending from the stone is a patch of grass as long as a fourteen-year-old boy and darker than the grass around it.

He puts his left foot on the darker grass, and the wolf comes into view, long forelegs appearing first from behind the tree. The wolf’s coat is the blue of the sky. On his belly, legs and muzzle, the blue shades into white. His eyes are green: glowing and human, full of sorrow and knowledge. They look straight into the boy. At first he thinks the wolf means to eat him, and it takes every bit of his courage not to look away. He knows the wolf has something to tell him and that if he looks away, wolf and message will vanish forever.

In the daylight world, there are no wolves on Small Island: They were hunted away long ago. There are still wolves in some parts of the Mainland, and every child has seen them in picture books. While the boy stares, the wolf’s eyes soften, as if the beast has decided to spare this child. The wolf says nothing that ears can hear, but his eyes speak clearly, telling the boy what he must do.

The man wakes slowly under sheets heavy with sweat. He can’t tell whether he is hot or cold. He knows he is still sick, sicker than he has ever been before. People on Small Island don’t get sick often. When they do, it is usually just before they die. But mostly they die in other ways than from sickness. They drink themselves to death, fall through the ice into the sea, cut each other with knives on Saturday night in Harbortown. All of this they understand and take for granted. But they don’t know much about being sick.

The man doesn’t know how to do it or what it requires of him. He looks to the woman sitting on the edge of the bed, which is her bed, for a sign. She is small and dark, barely denting the mattress. Her palm takes some of the heat from his forehead.

“Have I been sleeping long?”

“A little while.” To tell him the truth about how long he has been in and out of waking would frighten her. She reaches a towel into a basin of water, twists the water out, folds the towel and presses it to his forehead. He lies back and closes his eyes.

He has been in her house above Harbortown for two weeks with a bad fever. She has been changing the sheets, bathing his forehead with the towel dipped in water, wringing a few drops into his mouth, trying to see that he doesn’t burn up.

“How did I get here?”

It is the first time he has slept in her house. In the time they have been together, he has met her at her door, walked away with her through the snow in winter, over the wet earth in spring, the grass in summer, but until now he has never been in her house more than a few minutes at a time. The sheets are scratchy. He has a fever. He knows what fever is, as the children of Small Island know what a wolf is without ever having seen one except in books. But he doesn’t know what to do about it. In his world, there is a tool for every job. For sickness, he has no tools.

“Don’t worry about how you got here.” She wrings the towel out into the basin and presses it to his forehead. His face is narrow, his eyes a brown so dark it is almost black. His mustache droops over his mouth, gold sprinkled through the brown. There is dark stubble on his cheeks. Usually he is cleanshaven, except for the mustache. By Small Island standards he is a tidy man, though frequently drunk, sometimes for weeks at a time. On Small Island, this is not worthy of notice or comment.

She brought him to her house in a wheelbarrow, the one that usually stands outside his shed. He was in no shape to walk. When he hadn’t come to see her for three weeks, she was frightened. She knew he had been drinking. When he is drinking, he doesn’t come to see her for days, and she knows he will be in one of the bars in Harbortown. But they’ve been growing closer recently—at least she feels they have—and three weeks is too long for him to give no sign. Ignoring her shame, she asked after him in town, but no one had seen him.

She walked up to his shed, standing in a grove of maples away from other houses. He was sweating and delirious, lying on the floor. He didn’t recognize her, pushed her away when she reached for him. His wheelbarrow was outside the shed under a tarp, his hoe, axe and shovel piled in it. She took the tools out, went inside and took him under the arms. She has no idea how she got him into the wheelbarrow.

She wheeled him out under the leafless maples and over the packed snow to her house, his arms and legs dangling. The snow squeaked under her boots and the barrow’s wooden wheel. It took hours to get him to her house and walk and carry him up the narrow stairs to her bed. For the two weeks since, she has slept in the next room with her daughter, sleeping lightly, waking at every sound.

“Was I drinking?”

“Yes. But that’s not it. It’s fever. I brought you here to get better.”

What she does not say is: I was afraid you would die.

He looks at her, not knowing what to think. His dark eyes glow above purple half-moons. With his head against the pillow, the bald spot at the back of his head isn’t visible. Under the stubble he is paler and thinner than when he’s healthy, and there’s a red spot on each cheek. The way he looks tears at something inside her.

Waking this way, helpless in her bed, he feels suspicious. Suspicious of her and also grateful to her—not an easy combination. She reaches to touch his shoulder above the bedclothes. His body is hot. She knows the fever is not finished with him. And she is reaching the limit of her powers. She is tired, all the way to the bone. She thinks of calling the doctor, then puts that thought away.

He hears a soft noise and turns his head, his neck painful. The girl is in the doorway. In her build she resembles the woman: small, tightly knit, strong. But where the woman has dark hair and eyes, the girl has thick blond hair and blue eyes. The girl watches him in bed, making him feel weak, exposed. He has spent little time with the girl, and not all of it has been easy.

“Is he going to die?”

“Of course not.” The woman is off the bed, sweeping the girl up, moving her into the other room, tucking her back in bed. Hushed words pass between them, protests, then murmured agreement.

When she comes back, he is asleep. She pulls the covers around him, goes downstairs, refills the basin and balances it up the stairs. Sits on the edge of the bed wiping his forehead, trying to keep him cool. If the fever doesn’t break soon, she will have to call the doctor. Like asking for the man in the town, fetching the doctor will require her to overcome her embarrassment.

In his sleep he turns and almost upsets the basin. He begins to speak, a word at a time. She can tell it is a conversation, that others are present. She hears his mother’s name, his father’s, another name she doesn’t recognize. She leans forward, holding the basin, trying to bring her ear close enough so that she can hear everything.

Then she hears the knock on the front door: two soft, one loud, the tone demanding. Valter. It’s been a while since he’s come, and she knows a visit from her husband is due. Since she moved to this little house from the big house Valter’s family owns in Harbortown, he has come to see her from time to time, usually at night after he’s been drinking. He says he comes to see his daughter, but that’s not it. He comes to see her and have his way with her, short and sharp, with no preliminaries. To show he can. To show that, even if she’s left his house, some things don’t change on Small Island. She has never even thought about divorce.

Usually when he comes to her door, she lets him in. It’s easier that way. And if she is honest with herself, it is also because Valter’s brutal way occasionally still excites her the way it did in the beginning. Valter comes from one of Small Island’s rich families, although on Small Island the distance between rich and poor is not as large as it is elsewhere. The people of the island are close to one another and close to the sea. Everything they do goes into the sea or comes out of the sea. And they all share the experience of the sea and the unceasing wind and cold in winter.

She wraps herself in an old blanket, plaid on a red ground, and goes down the stairs slowly, thinking her way through it all: Valter at the door, the man in her bed in his fever, her child awake in the dark watching the moonlight on the ceiling. She stops in the kitchen and picks up a long boning knife, folds the blanket over it. The man upstairs has sharpened her knives to a fine edge. She runs a finger over the blade, cuts and licks, enjoying the salty flavor of her own blood.

She opens the door and stands, not inviting Valter in or moving aside so that he can pass. Her husband is large and red-faced, two heads taller than she is and much heavier, smelling of whiskey. The moon over his shoulder is almost full. Covered in moonlight, Valter is dark and bulky, his coat of black fur, his hat the same stuff, fine and broad-brimmed. He is prosperous and hard. Life submits to a man like Valter. Three fat salmon, strung through their silver gills, dangle from a gloved hand.

“Not now, Valter.”

“And why not, Kipfchen? You have a visitor?” He laughs, a brutal laugh that echoes like a voice in an empty barrel. Among the things Valter’s family owns is a prosperous fish business. Much of what they sell is herring, pickled, packed in barrels and sold all the way to the Mainland.

She runs her thumb along the blade under the blanket, makes another small cut. “It’s not a good time.”

“I brought fish for her.”

“Thank you. She’s already asleep. You can’t come up.”

As if he hadn’t heard, he takes a step toward her, his boots squeaking on the hard-packed snow. She pulls the blanket tighter, holding the handle of the knife. Since they were children, the woman has always felt a current of fear when she faces Valter. It ebbs and flows, but it has never gone away completely—until this moment.

Like a bear, Valter can smell danger. It is an unfamiliar sensation. He is used to ownership, to wearing a heavy fur coat and hat, the weight of it keeping the cold away. Used to well-made boots that come all the way from the Mainland on the Big Island steamer. He is not used to being even a little bit afraid. But he won’t force things. Valter is patient. He can afford to be. He is rich.

Before what’s happening has even registered in her mind, Valter has turned and is moving away. From the big dark form comes a song. Valter is famous on Small Island for the number of drinking songs he knows. The fish, string quivering through their gills, lie in the snow where he dropped them, filling the prints of his expensive Mainland boots. She closes the door of her house, leaving the fish lying outside like visitors waiting for permission to enter.

In the kitchen she puts the knife down, washes the blood off her cuts, bandages her fingers and goes upstairs. The girl is asleep, golden curls covering her arm, thumb in her mouth. She tucks the blanket around the girl, turns down the lamp, goes across the hall and stands in the doorway. The man is asleep, quilt falling from his shoulders.

She stands looking at his lean form, thinking that he drinks too much. She never drinks. On Small Island, some drink all the time, others never. And it affects everyone differently. Valter drinks just as much as this man. But it never alters his bearlike nature, only expands it. This man, it undoes. As she watches, he begins to move, turning from side to side. His jaw clenches and unclenches. She leans in, but she can make out only fragments.

His dream is beginning again where he left it when he woke. The eyes of the wolf told him what he needed to do. Now he is doing it, and taking his task very seriously—more seriously than he has ever taken anything. He has never been able to take himself or what he does seriously. It is one of the reasons he drinks so much. He is a wonderful worker in wood. Every piece he works on comes out right, with nothing wasted. But this skill came to him without effort. And because it came with no effort he has never respected it—or himself for it.

In the dream, it’s different: Every step matters. He is following the wolf’s instructions carefully, taking the path through the woods. His parents’ house is the same as always, with the sloping roof, wooden walls, joist-and-beam construction of every house on Small Island, except for those of one or two wealthy families, such as Valter’s. A few pines overhang the house, making it seem dark even though it stands by itself on a bluff overlooking the sea.

As he approaches, he hears his father and mother, their voices loud and getting louder, clanging as they collide. The conversation is unhurried, as if they have spoken the same harsh words many times before, and each knows exactly what the other is about to say. As usual, they have both been drinking. His mother’s voice is like a knife on a whetstone. Underneath it is grief. His father’s voice is louder and more violent, but he is pleading.

He climbs the three steps to the front door, trying to avoid making the wood creak so he can hear what his parents are saying. His dream has a silvery quality that enters it from the room where he is sleeping. The curtains have been pushed back and moonlight pours across the bed. She watches him silently, then goes down the narrow stairs to check the stove.

The door to his parents’ house is open. He eases across the threshold into the darkness, making himself small as he listens to the voices from the bedroom where his parents sleep, fuck and tear into each other in their drunkenness.

You killed him.

I never would.

You took him into the sea and he never came back.

I couldn’t stop him. You know what he wanted. And he was good at it. The sea was in his nature. You can’t change that. Any more than you can change your nature—or I mine.

He could have been anything. He didn’t have to be that. He could have left this godforsaken little island and gone anywhere.

You’re dreaming. Nobody leaves Small Island.

He could have. He was different. Better than you. Better than you can imagine.

You know I didn’t do this. It’s no one’s fault. Why can’t you stop hating me? It won’t bring him back.

Stop hating you? You’re asking me to forgive? Forgive you? You half-man. Quarter-man. Less than that. You—nothing.

Everyone on Small Island has lost someone to the sea. Many families have lost more than one. You’re lucky. You have another son.

That sniveler? He’s a little too much like you for my taste.

He’s a good boy. Or he would be—if he had a mother who said a kind word to him now and then.

He’s a weakling. Weaker than you—if such a thing is possible. He’ll grow up to be a sack of whiskey just like you. The other one was beautiful. He could have been anything in this world, if he hadn’t gone in your filthy boat, stinking of seaweed, and never come back. You killed him. And you know it. I hear it in your voice every time you speak. You’re guilty. You’re weak. You’re hollowed out with dry rot. And nothing you do can ever change that.

The boy hears silence and then an explosion. His mother has thrown her bottle, and it’s missed, smashing and making another mark on a wall that already has many marks. He knows what will happen now. They will fall on each other, hitting each other with anything within reach, couple like beasts, then pass out in a heap of clothes smelling of sweat, salt water, fish and alcohol.

The door of his parents’ bedroom is partly open. He makes his way across the boards of the living room floor, laid down by his father and his father’s father when his parents were newlyweds, before they lost his brother and wound up sodden on the floor, clawing each other in rage.

Against the far wall is a huge sideboard: dark, solid and heavy, with glass doors under an arching top. Inside are the few pieces of his mother’s china that have survived the years of throwing. When he was little, nothing in this sideboard was ever used. Like everyone else on Small Island his family ate off simple plates and wiped their hands on rags.

The sideboard was made from hardwoods by a famous company on the Mainland. No metal was used in making it, aside from the hinges, lock and key. Every piece is attached by its own shape or by pegs of the same wood. It could be taken apart, piece by piece, and put back together without a single tool. Even on Small Island, where many are good with tools and wood, this piece has always seemed exceptional.

The sideboard has been in the boy’s life from the beginning. And it was often talked about. People made fun of his mother for it. To her face, they were not eager to make her angry. Even before his brother’s death, her anger was nothing to trifle with. But behind her back they mocked her for the airs she gave herself for owning the finest piece of furniture on Small Island.

The boy knows the drawers by heart; he began opening them when he was small. At first he pulled himself up by the handles. When he could stand up on his own, he opened the lowest of the three drawers. The stages of his childhood were marked by when he was able to reach the second drawer and look inside, then the third, always careful to slide them back with everything just as it was before the drawer was opened.

He slides the second drawer open with care. There is little light in the house, but he knows everything in the drawer by touch. There are three stacks. In the center, he feels the thing he has been asked to bring. Its texture brings the creamy white linen into his mind’s eye.

He pushes the drawer back slowly, even though he’s sure his parents have passed out on the floor. He backs away from the sideboard and passes the open door to their bedroom without looking in.

The man wakes clutching the covers, drenched in sweat, the sheet twisted in his hand where the napkin was in the dream. For a moment dream and waking life are wrestling, neither one strong enough to pin the other to the ground. Then he hears footsteps coming up the stairs: heavy, definitive and male. He leans his head back against the pillow, not knowing who is coming, too weak to fight.


 John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. The Boatmaker is his debut novel.