• story by William D. Howden • from the 1970 Sage Literary Magazine

Night.  As the ship throbs and hisses through the boiling Philippine Sea, and the ship’s clocks tick, and my berth feels like a tiny, tight-shut, wave-tossed trunk; then, when I can’t stand the mid-summer, rubber-cement heat another minute, I arise, throw the whole mess, mattress and sheets and all, over my head and wearily trudge out on deck, seeking a cool breeze and sleep.  Up the deckhouse ladder, ghostly like the sailing southern moon, sheet-enfolded; across the still scorching metal deck; finally, behind the black smokestack, I throw my pallet down and catching the ship’s roll, hurl myself down too, to stare up at the cross-cutting stars.

With the ching-slap-ching of the flapping rigging and the twisting plunge of the ship, my heart beats.  Blood swooshes in my ears.  Must be past midnight.

For an instant there’s a breeze.  Now it’s gone—leaving only the salt smell of the sea and redolence of the rotting, green-splattered land somewhere over the horizon.  By the color of the day’s black back and the hour, I know it’s night at sea.  And by the ship’s unending throb and my own naked, deck-sprawled, sleeplessness pounding; I’m not sure whether the gold-hammered sun will ever rise again.  Long, sweating night, and still no sleep.

In the bright morning I awaken suddenly.  The wind has shifted.  Lying behind the smoke stack, I’m covered with peppers of diesel soot.  Little black grains like burned out stars fallen in the night.