NATIVES OF MY PERSON extract from new novel

The ocean was everywhere. Green precipices of water splintered and fell out of sound in the wide distance. The ship lingered within an arc of white fire that lifted sunwards, burning the air. One man tried to watch the race of water and fire until a swift sensation shut his eyes: a fine, furious, drill of ache chiselling away at the back of his skull; and he leaned his body like a corpse onto cryslaturn. His hands operated on their own: hot, fragile sticks of bone searching vaguely through his blindness. Now he felt a nerve breathe somewhere under one eyelid, and a bolt of water charged the ship. His hands collapsed like bramble down his sides. Time afterwards — maybe hours or a second he could not tell — the seamen were reviving him with rum.

“It’s the devil’s medicine for a willing soul,” said Duclos. He was a man of frivolous manner with a kindness of heart which his colleagues received and suspected at the same time.

“The devil’s medicine,” Duclos repeated for want of something more cheerful to say.

“What is?” the voice of the stricken man was trying to ask. “What is? What is?”

“That there sun,” said Duclos and instantly regretted what he had said. This was another difficulty for Duclos. His gestures of goodwill often caused him to grieve their effect on others. He had to distract the man’s attention from any reference to the heat.

“A last swig and you’ll be asleep,” he said, “like an angel. A babe not yet born. That’s how you’ll be asleep.”

The man didn’t respond. Duclos was seized by a sudden panic. “Ivan, Ivan, Ivan.”

The word turned itself like tape around his tongue. That was the man’s name; but it had lost the power to define. And Duclos feared for his own sanity. Was it really Ivan whom he was nursing back to consciousness?

“Ivan,” he repeated. “Ivan. Ivan!”

A familar voice broke into his weeping, shattering his obsession with madness and dying.

“Every man to his business,” the Commandant had ordered. Duclos was searching for the right tone of entreaty; but the Commandant’s voice had found its flint. “To his buisness every man.”

The men dispersed, leaving Ivan splayed across the bunkerie. The Commandant dictated a glance at Duclos who appeared to linger. “Every man,” the voice shouted again.

There was iron and smell of blood in its sound. The Commandant’s life was an example of how to give orders. No one could now recall a time when he had done anything else. It was his work, his doom, a total existence.

“Rest!” he said, turning what ration of sympathy his eyes could offer Ivan’s body. “Until you are fit. Rest!”

It wasn’t clear whether Ivan had heard. He lay where the soldiers had deposited him, light, immobile, beyond sensation.

As the Commandant was about to go he noticed the short man with the huge cauliflower ears and the stern, melancholy eyes that returned his stare. His name was Baptiste. No word passed between him and the Commandant who was now marching briskly, decisively, back to his quarters. Baptiste walked over to the bunkerie and sat beside Ivan. He said nothing. He just sat there, a man keeping watch; silent, purposeful.

The ship cut its way forward, driven by contrary winds that just couldn’t overtake the recurring arc of white fire lifting sunwards and vanishing into multiple flames of ocean. Everything appeared near and beyond, ever over there. Somewhere undiscernible. Just forever over there.

Baptiste was reflecting. Always Baptiste seemed to reflect. That was his habit, his way of being. The Commandant symbolized and enacted the essence of command. Baptiste lived a reflection. For him, eating, working breathing was always reflecting.

. . .to die, I’m going to die, the Commandant is going to die, Dulcos is going to die, and Ivan, maybe Ivan is dying, maybe not, but Ivan, even Ivan, he is going to die. We are all going to die. That is why I am here, that is why the Commandant is here, that is why Dulcos is here, that is why the soldiers are here, and the men, once idle, cast-away, collected at random, an ordinary Sunday morning when nothing in particular was happening except God, nothing except God on an ordinary Sunday morning. The idle and castaway invited by royal order to sail for a purpose not known, not necessary to know, just invited by royal order to set sail, journey called duty, destination glory. The men are going to die. The Commandant is nothing, just a hole, a hole that takes in messages, then lets them out, lets out orders. Just a hole, in and out. A hole. The Commandant talks and I hear a hole letting out orders. The Commandant shits in my ears. Every time the message is ready for relieving, the hole opens. I hear the Commandant shitting in my ears. The Commandant is going to die. I am going to die. That is why we are here.

“You talk to yourself?”

The voice had startled Baptiste. He looked everywhere except down at Ivan who had spoken.

“I gave you up for dead,” said Baptiste, recovering from the shock of Ivan’s self-talk. “Who it is talking? You or your ghost?’

“You don’t answer my question.” said Ivan. “I ask you if you talk with yourself?”

“How do you feel now?” Baptiste said. “It was a stroke that knock you down. They give you up for dead.”

“Where is Dulcos?” Ivan asked. “I thought it was Dulcos I hear talking with himself.”

“You are still drunk.” said Baptiste. “the stroke turned your head, knocked you down. A daze it is. That’s what you have now. A small daze.”

“It is over” said Ivan, trying to raise himself up from the bunkcrie. He faltered, but refused help, insisting on proving his strength.

“Go easy,” said Baptiste. “you don’t owe nothing nowhere. So go easy.”