Raphael sat in the same spot that Vashti had taken when she came up. He watched her boney fingers and chewed fingernails as they followed the wheel spin left to right and right to left; maintaining just enough pressure to keep the boat riding up and down the waves without banging directly into the surf.
White spray doused the bow every seven or eight seconds. It landed with a thwop and fizz, and then rushed aft, along the gunwales, losing its life and volume along the way. Vashti craned her neck to the high side of the boat so she could peer over the wheel, around the cabin, and under the jib at the next wave. Raphael watched her neck. He watched her muscles tense and release, holding her head tall as she followed the bow.
Paralos enjoyed this. Vashti was fine at the helm. Better than him, perhaps.
She pushed a finger under her bandana and tapped her left ear.
Raphael leaned to the high side to rummage through a damp pocket and swapped the sat phone for a pack of cigarettes and lighter. He carefully unfolded the ripped lid and plucked two bent cigarettes.
He straightened both, as best he could, careful not to break the damp, tobacco-stained wrapper. He twisted to his right and down, out of the wind, with two filters between his lips. With his spare hand as a shield, the lighter sparked to life and Raphael drew in smoke.
Vashti turned to him. He extended an arm and placed a glowing cigarette in her mouth. Looking back at the approaching seas, she pursed her lips and inhaled.
“Thank you,” she said after a deep, anxious draw. The cigarette dangled in her mouth as smoke leaked from between her lips and then rushed into the darkness.
They would figure out this problem in the morning, he thought.
Neville did rise at two. He poked his head up from the companionway. Raphael told him to rest some more. He and Vashti glanced at each other, surprised when he returned to his bunk.
Not long after, the wind started laying down. The waves still rolled them but the edge was off the peaks, now round and smooth.
Vashti sat down next to Raphael and steered with her left hand.
She tapped her left and then right ear through her bandana.
“I think my ears are damp,” she said. “Maybe when we dropped the main.”
“Maybe you need to take a nap and give me your flask,” he replied. “You can pop out your ears and then nap for a bit. You have been at it for hours. I have been resting.”
Raphael bowed and lit two more cigarettes before standing to take the wheel. Vashti let go and then lounged behind him, mould herself into the shape of the bench and rested her crossed feet on the cockpit coaming. She pulled out the flask; he handed her a smoke.
“Do remember the first time I met you, Raf? And it wasn’t that concert on the lawn down in the battery.”
“It was at that pub owned by that crazy man Terry, across the canal. It was probably six months before that concert. When I came in, you were tucked in the corner reading a heavy-looking book. You had a bottle of red and Terry kept your glass filled even though you didn’t talk to him.”
“Yup. I like to read in that place,” he said.
Vashti continued. She was at the other end of the bar, with a few girlfriends. They ordered apple martinis. They were talking too loud and meant for everyone sitting at the bar to hear them.
“There was a man on the corner near you with his girlfriend,” she said. “I guess his girlfriend. He was drunk and told us to shut the fuck up.”
She rubbed her right ear with the palm of her hand.
“I asked Terry who you were. There you were, all alone, vaguely scruffy, drunken looking, reading a two-inch-thick book that you didn’t look up from, even when four sexy women walked in. Even when we laughed too loud. I figured you for a nutter or someone interesting.
“Terry said interesting.”
“I would never trade on Terry’s judgment,” Raphael said.
“Then he yells over to you, ‘Raphael, you should meet Vashti here. She likes to sail and she’s hot.’ Terry’s a dick sometimes. You looked up and waved politely but your face was cold, almost frozen like no one was welcome on your side of the bar.”
“I don’t remember that,” Raphael said, even as he suspected he knew what was next: The drunk was hunched over the bar and his date. A paw locked on her forearm as he spat words at her. She had turned her head away from the man, her wet eyes, searching.
The woman tried to move her arm but he had it pinned.
“I had gone out back, to the kitchen, to grab a few loose joints from the chef,” Vashti said. “And when I came around front, I saw you through the front window. I saw you get up. I couldn’t see all of that drunk’s face and didn’t understand what he was saying but his lips were moving fast and were wet with spit.
“You put an arm over his shoulder. You said something in his ear and the man laughed and laughed. And he was agreeing with you. He threw up both hands like you had revealed something to him.
“The woman jumped up and sprinted out and then down the road.
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t reveal anything. He just agreed with me,” Raphael said.
“Agreed with what? What did you say?”
Raphael glanced to the north and steered slightly higher into the wind: “What difference does it make?”
“None, really, but I want to know.”
Raphael remained silent.
“Come on Raf. It’s just you and me.”
Raphael sighed. “I told him his date was a cunt and he’d be better off without her. I said all women are cunts but the prettier they are, the purer the cunt. And then I went on from there.”
“That’s pretty ugly.”
“Was his date a cunt?”
“You knew her?”
“I did,” Raphael said, etching the white lines of the big dipper into the darkness in his mind. “That woman was Isaac’s sister.”
“And that’s all I got,” Raphael said. “This chat is over. And, I trust, just between us.”
She reached out and touched Raphael’s back. He twisted his back and her hand fell away as he traced the lines of the little dipper with his eyes.
“OK,” Vashti announced after a time. “My ears are out.”
Vashti found a ball of tissue in a pocket. She wiped each hearing aid, careful to get into the creases. She looked at the tissue, illuminated by the red compass light, it was dry. Still, she dropped them in a sack of small green balls that were supposed to absorb moisture. Raphael thought to ask if those balls worked with saltwater but decided against it, given she couldn’t hear.
“They have been crackling for the last hour,” she said. “Shake me if you need me.”
In ten minutes, Raphael could hear her breathing had slowed. The wind had too. Vashti paused between breaths as if resting even from the effort required to breathe. It was less than a couple of hours before dawn. Maybe when the crew woke up, all of this nonsense would be gone. Then he would rest, dozing on the sunny side of the boat while the others sailed.
For now, he had the sky to himself and it opened before him. He imagined stars and galaxies dribbling dots of white onto his cheeks.
Some of the stars seemed to hover just above the boat. So close that the top of the mast might knock one from its perch.
He found the coffin box of Ophiuchus, descending in the western sky. Hercules, too, just below the western glow of the Milky Way. Cassiopeia’s M spun counterclockwise around Polaris, like all the constellations in the northern sky. Aries. Pegasus. Andromeda.
Raphael thought of Basque cod fisherman who sailed the Atlantic to Newfoundland, even before the Vikings. They found their way on boats no larger than Paralos.
He was now one of the thousands, perhaps millions, of sailors who had crisscrossed the Atlantic for a thousand years. He couldn’t remember if the Basques, or Norwegians for that matter, even used a compass. Would they have relied on Polaris? The pole star has moved over time. The Romans didn’t, he knew that. In fact, sailors on Roman ships didn’t have a star. They picked a point between two stars, the names of which he couldn’t recall.
The short hairs on the back of his neck and arms stood up and Raphael welcomed the childish tingle
These ruminations held him for some time and only released their grip when, on the starboard side, he caught the flash of something, distant weather perhaps. And then a flash again, a distant thunderstorm, he thought. The light arced green and white and blue but it was far off.
Then to his north, another flash. And east too.
Suddenly, a green curtain of light crashed from space in the southeast and then raced westward, as a jagged band, dragging molten tendrils. His eyes followed it past Paralos and watched it taper off white in the west. And then two more, these from north to south.
“Vashti, Vashti,” he said, reaching around and squeezing her knee. “Vashti, you gotta see this.”
He felt her fumble behind him.
Another green band shot across the sky. This one spun and whirled like a kite tail and then tapered to white.
Gradually, the sky filled with lights. Arches of reds and greens. Spires of blues and purples. Some colors lingered, fluttering like a butterfly in June. Others shot like a javelin.
Vashti shoved her hearing aids into her ear canal and clicked them on.
“What is that sound?”
“That whooshing and popping. Oh my God, that was one loud.”
The eastern sky pulsed green and she raised her voice: “I DIDN’T KNOW THE NORTHERN LIGHTS MAKE SOUND. CRAZY. DID YOU?”
Raphael heard vague whispers from the rigging, but no popping or whooshing.
Vashti’s raised voice awoke first Isaac first and then Nils, moments later. Nils pulled his hair back with two hands and lustily drew in a fresh day of air. They both sat up and leaned their heads back, their chins drooping as they rubbed away the night from their eyes.
Vashti clicked off her hearing aids.
“The green is from oxygen. The red is nitrogen,” Isaac said. “Someone should record this.”
No one moved.
Neville ascended from below. “Mother fucker,” he said, pushing Nils aft to make room on the port side bench for him to sit.
The day’s first rays, ultraviolet, infrared, gamma rays, were hitting the upper atmosphere exciting gaseous atoms, Isaac informed the crew. He pulled off his hood and re-pinned his yarmulke.
“Maybe this is from a solar flare,” he said.
A purple slow-motion tornado twisted to the north.
“I don’t know what would cause purple,” Isaac said. “Argon? Maybe a mix of gases. Pollution?”
In the sky to Isaac’s back, Nils and Raphael watched glowing wisps of red fade to orange like flames in a dying campfire.
The wind had almost died now and Paralos sloshed around on the diminishing seas. The sails flapped beneath the storm of plasma, ignored and useless.
“What’s orange?” Nils asked, flames flickering on the whites of his eyes.
“I don’t know,” Isaac said.