“Elementals” – Fiction by Ilana Masad

Ship in a Storm - Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1879
Ship in a Storm – Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1879

“Elementals” is Ilana Masad‘s fantastically turbulent short fiction from our Fall 2016 issue.

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DO YOU HAVE A CHILD? How about a niece or nephew? Well then, what about an old mother, knitting a sweater for you that is always too small when you return ashore? Hm. No siblings either? A father? No, of course not, none of you have fathers. Right, well, hear me out. I’m sure, and don’t deny this now, you have a lovely lady waiting onshore for you somewhere, maybe she’s a redhead, maybe a brunette, maybe her tresses are silky black and Oriental. I don’t judge. It’s not my business to judge, you see. So this lady – no, don’t try to sit up now – this lady, she’ll be wondering what has become of you. She’ll be walking along the docks day after day, holding her rosary beads, because let me tell you, all women turn religious when they fret and if you haven’t learned that yet, you’re in for a shock, oh my yes you are. So she, this daughter of God, is saying her Hail Marys and her Our Fathers and she is atoning, you see, for all her sins. And what’ll happen when she hears about you? We’ll dock eventually, my boy, and then what? Then the news will get out and she’ll hear about the noble way you went, yes, they’ll tell brave stories about you I’m sure, but will she be comforted? After all, you’ll get the sailors’ burial, much as I wish I could spare you that, and she won’t get so much as a casket to kiss for the last time before it’s put into the damp earth of our Lord. What? No lady even?

 

Tossed like toys by rambunctious oceanic whims, still they sail. Wind whipping flagellations and rain coming down in icy spears, the men feel a thousand sewing needles falling on their every exposed bit of skin, not just the familiar thumb and forefinger accustomed to the sensation. Their faces do not reflect light any longer. The sun has been gone far too long.

 

Again? Yes, here’s the bucket. Good, good, get it all out. Amazing, what the body can do, isn’t it? Going of unrelated causes and still able to get sick as a landlubber from a bit of a storm. All thanks to our Creator, you know. It’s small miracles like this, really, that make every day a fresh, bright, and new one, you know. Where were we, you stubborn dog? Ah, yes, you said there’s no lady. You’re sure? None? No special friend? Well, now, we don’t normally condone this sort of thing, but in this case, I will understand and absolve you… perhaps a gentleman? Don’t look at me like that, I wasn’t born yesterday, young man, I know well what happens above and below me on these decks. Sometimes, I hear it extends to shore, to marriage-like relationships. Un-Godly, but then the whole group of you are, and that’s what I’m here for. Hm? No? No gentleman either? Well.

 

Crooked shafts of lightning hurled by the gods of Greece and Rome and pagan storymongers seal the skies with a kiss. Thunder rolls its dice over and over again, waiting for the weighted one to fall right above the ship with a heavy and satisfying rumble-thump. Roiling water gushes over the sides of the wooden dinghy that hubristically calls itself by more respectable names and the sea attempts to swallow it whole. Men are not at stake here; it is only a tug of war between the sky and the sea. Which will get the toy? Which will win this round?

Look, boy, all right, no children, no wife, no family to speak of. Whom do you love then? You must love someone. What? Truly? The monkey? Fine. Fine! Let it be the monkey then. Well, and so, you rescued the monkey, is that right? And you keep it close to you – excuse me, all right, we won’t argue about souls just now, so you keep him, yes, him, close to you, and he gives you comfort, and you take care of him, yes? Good, right, well, how will he feel when you go? Why, dreadful, yes, precisely, just awful and—bucket, good, good—and he, being a monkey, won’t even understand what has happened to you, but he will, being so close to a human child as you have made him, dressed up in his little coat and pants like that, oh yes, I see, you’ve fit him with a cloth around his bottom just like a baby, how clever! And so, perhaps he has even learned some sort of speech from you, don’t you think? Does he recognize his name? He does, you say, well, you see? And I have seen him, yes, I tell you I have seen him at my meetings, he sits on Dewey’s shoulder there since you don’t attend, and he listens with a face as clever as any man, and maybe cleverer. Perhaps this monkey has been more blessed than I even realized, for he clearly has a connection with our Lord that you refuse to acknowledge and—no, come now, don’t punish the little thing! He is a good monkey, very obedient, I’m sure, but when it comes to matters of Heaven, he must follow his own conscience, isn’t that so? Isn’t that just what you said to me when I came in here? See, yes, I do listen to you, my boy, I am not merely an instrument of, what is it you called it? The papal machine, yes, that’s right. Fancy the pope being part of a machine, how modern.

 

But hark! The storm hears it too, hears another struggle deep within its prey; and the sea and sky pause for a heartrending moment of indecision, the breath before a howl of rage, the time it takes the blacksmith to raise the hammer high above his head just before the downswing. In that instance of silence the enemies smile at one another and switch sides. They are allies now, elementals, and their fight is for something far more satisfying and far more filling than mere splinters of wood and chunks of flesh.

 

So here is how it is. The monkey, when you leave, will know where you’ve gone. Yes, yes, just so, the in-between place that takes forever to get out of, yes, we have a slightly more comprehensive name for it, but the point is, my boy, that this little monkey, whose life-span is far shorter than most men, you know, will spend the rest of his life praying for you to get out of there and ascend to Heaven. Do you understand the kind of sacrifice you’re asking of him? Whoops, that was a bit of a buffet there, wasn’t it? Storm’s getting stronger, I suppose. Bucket? No? Oh, good, well, I just hope this chair doesn’t fall over again, my hip isn’t as young as it used to be. Now, think of it, my boy, all you need to do to make that time shorter for this little monkey, the praying time I mean – did you say what his name was? Dagda? Unwieldy name, quite, don’t you think Marcus or something would be better? Dagda, fine, yes, Dagda, of course. So little Dadga—I’m sorry, yes, Dagda here, his praying and worrying time can be cut short if you’ll only confess, dear man. You’ve been baptized, I have your papers, you know, from shore, and whether you want to be or not you are a good lad and part of my flock. This ship, yes, the entire ship, that is my flock. Why did I leave shore? Oops, ouch, I think I’d really better stand or—maybe, maybe sitting on the bunk with you is the best thing, yes. Just bring your legs up a little bit, will you? I left shore because I had a calling. Yes, indeed. Now, if you confess, and let me do the last rites, which is why I’m here after all, as well as for the weekly services, of course, then you will spend less time in purgatory, you see? I will be able to absolve you of many of your sins already, and you will ascend into heaven that much quicker and Dagda can enjoy his monkey years without fretting his little head over—what? Yes, I’ll take care of him if you like, alright. I’ll be honored. But can I expect, in return…?

 

On and on and on, raise the waves higher, blow the wind stronger, pile it on and on and on, the rain and the breaking waves and the buffeting painful blows of the wind. It’s too late to summon a sea creature from the deep, they are hard to stir, and the sky is too rough to bring any legendary fire-breathers down on this battle, but oh, they wish they could, they know they are losing, their force is too humane, too earthly, too day-to-day to these rough and hardened sailors. The captain stands on the prow and shakes his fist and laughs right in their face, so proud of his steady little boat, so sure of its capacity to withstand them and they do not even worry about defeating his knotty-faced surety anymore, his whistling shrieks are ignored. Their unacknowledged duel will take him down too, if they win, but he is not the target, he is a byproduct, an innocent bystander, a spectator in a show bigger than he will ever know.

 

Because it doesn’t work that way, that’s why! I don’t confess myself to dying men, no! I confess myself to a priest too, just like you will do now. We won’t die, the captain has us well in hand, I have faith in him and in God. Yes, alright, and on the very far-fetched chance that the ship capsizes, I will find a way back to shore, and that’s that. It’s not me we’re discussing, dear boy. It’s you, you see? Your immortal soul. Do you really want to be caught for eons in the boredom, no, the tragedy of purgatory? Oh, there is no such thing, every man has something to confess, why even I—no, I shall not tell you what it is, but of course I have things to confess. Well, alright, for example, even the smallest transgressions against the lord weigh on me. When I, for instance, rush a service because I know that you sailors are impatient to get back to your dominoes and your cards and whatever other heathenish gambling games you’ve picked up. Yes, that is something I would confess. No, I—oh my. Yes, I’m quite sure everyone on the ship must have heard that. Could you tell if it was from above or below? If it’s on deck that’s one thing, but if it’s below…

 

Brilliant stroke of luck, or good steering, the sky commends the sea on its rocky diversion and bangs together the ominous cymbals of thunder, spits its lightning twice as fast and bright in celebration of a job well done. It is not over, but they’ve raised the odds in their favor now and they would not be leery to bet on themselves winning the day, they agree. The captain’s rugged and hairy face has not the capacity to pale any longer, not visibly, so, but his hands begin to shake and his mouth retreats into the shelter of his beard.

 

Oh God, oh God, it’s below, I can hear it, I can hear the trickling, what’ll we do? Look, quick, let’s do it now, we’ll skip Penance and Anointing, but you must take the Eucharist, you really must, and don’t you see there’s no harm? There’s no harm! It’s a small wafer, look at it, all you must do is open your mouth and I will bless it and you as it passes between us, you see? Why are you laughing? I say, I think he’s lost it completely now, the storm, maybe he’s so close to death, I—what? Blasted monkey! Give that back to me! That’s not for you, you soulless fiend! And you shut up, it’s not at all funny, animals can’t take Eucharist, all that buggered monkey has gotten is a little cracker. I hadn’t blessed it yet. Are you pleased with yourself, sir? Millennia in purgatory, that’s just what you’ve sentenced yourself to. And—my lord, there it was again. I—yes? Yes, you’re sending boats out? Thank God! Let’s go. No, you can’t take him with you—he’s gone mad, you see, look at him laughing, and besides, he’s going to die anyway. Yes, yes, God understands. It is his will. He will forgive. Come now, let’s go already man, what are you blithering about here for?

 

The waves echo the man’s laughter, the sky cries down its tears of relief. They have won.

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New HeadshotILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American fiction writer living in NYC. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Broadly, Hypertext Magazine, and many more. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and struggling writers.

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