Eclipsed, Scott Gathright
Early that day, clouds had rolled overhead and started to shower The Bulwark and the surrounding sea in a bout of rain. Kubo had watched the South African coastline of KwaZulu-Natal disappear slowly behind a curtain of water through his circular window in the ship’s kitchen.
As he prepared a meal of fried stokvis, the Cape hake indigenous to this part of the Atlantic Ocean, supplemented with vegetables and beans from a can, Kubo’s mind began drifting back home. Back to dry land that didn’t swell and fall beneath his feet and back to his apartment where Tanja would be singing lullabies as she put their little Zara to bed. He longed to be back there, to feel Zara’s tiny hands around his finger as she drifted off to sleep, but the ship was still such a long way from shore.
By midday, the wind was stirring up waves powerful enough to rock The Bulwark back and forth in her low seat on the water. Yet the deck crew, clad in orange coveralls and rain jackets, continued their work of hoisting full nets out of the water with the ship’s crane arm, and gutting their catch for storage below deck. Other fishermen had moored their vessels at the docks in precaution against the impending storm, but the captain of The Bulwark had laughed at them.
“A little breeze like that don’t scare me. Won’t even slow down our motors!” He pointed a finger at the smaller, family-owned ships around them. “Those poor souls on the other hand will capsize for sure if they’re out here by noon. Looks like it will be easy fishing for us!”
The captain had been right of course, the fishing was easy. Kubo had watched the crew haul in net after net even as the weatherman on the radio issued a level 3 storm advisory. The Bulwark, being a commercial fishing vessel, was much larger and more resilient to bad weather than the mom and pop boats, but the thought of being caught out in a storm was still unsettling.
A door in the mess hall adjoining Kubo’s kitchen swung open and the captain, followed by a dozen or so crew members, hurried in to take their meal. The deck crew were drenched, strands of hair clung to their faces and their glistening rain gear left puddles wherever they stopped. The captain announced that the freezers were full of stokvis and that he had been reluctant to release a full net back into the ocean, but they couldn’t take the extra weight. He said that their return trip would take longer than expected, but they would be back on land in time for dinner.
The deck crew, exhausted from the long day of work, retired after their meal and Kubo took a few moments to stare out at the increasingly turbulent sea. The extra weight of their cargo was indeed slowing them down; motors whined loudly and when The Bulwark came crashing into the trough of a wave, her deck dipped frighteningly close to the water line. Better not to think about it. The captain would get them home soon.
Sitting barefoot on his mattress, Kubo put down the collection of South African children’s stories he had imagined reading to Zara. His attempt to distract himself from the swaying movements of the ship had failed. The fluorescent bulb on the ceiling flickered as The Bulwark swayed toward starboard side, and over the buzz of the light, he could hear the muffled sound of men conversing in the room next to his.
He couldn’t help feeling uneasy as the ship swayed back port side. Usually he didn’t get seasick. What had the man on the radio said about the storm warning? Level 3, that meant it was dangerous to be out on the water.
The Bulwark rolled starboard… and continued rolling. Kubo lost his balance and went careening towards the door. Someone shouted outside his room and the fluorescent light flickered out leaving him in momentary darkness. His shoulder crashed into the door, and the loosely fitting latch buckled under his weight, sending him sprawling into the corridor.
Kubo was immobilized by panic. He lay prone, his mind blank, listening to the shouts of people scrambling to escape their bedrooms as the ship’s side hit the water with a slap that rang through the hull. In that moment, the remaining lights went out leaving only a green exit sign glowing at the end of the corridor, and an eerie quiet replacing the rumbling of engines.
In the dim light of the exit sign, he saw a figure stumble along the wall, which was now the floor. The figure pulled on the sideways door next to the exit sign, and it flopped open like an oven. A torrent of water rushed through with a horrible gurgling sound and swept the figure off his feet. Kubo could barely see the water in the dim light of the exit sign as it hit him head on. He drew a sharp breath as the cold water, causing goosebumps on his skin, pushed him down the corridor towards the bow of the ship. He collided with the end of the corridor, his head leaving the water just long enough to take another gulp of air. Then he was submerged.
Kicking out against the wall, Kubo tried to swim back up the corridor to where the water had come from. Back towards the blurry green beacon which no longer looked like words through the stinging salt water. Every stroke brought him closer, but already a firestorm was igniting in his chest. How long could he fight on before he lost consciousness?
He reached the sign, his lungs burning, desperate for air. Still, he pushed himself through the open door, into the darkness beyond.
Kubo tried to remember what the room looked like that led to the crew’s quarters, but the orientation of the ship was all wrong. Right was down and down was left. His heart thumped in his chest, he needed air. Air was up, his instinct told him, and he kicked upwards, arm outstretched above his head, into the darkness. The water pressed on his lungs and he couldn’t stop a few bubbles from escaping through his lips. His hand hit something, a wall, but there was another opening. He pulled himself through. More bubbles escaped his lips, the ship was beginning to spin all around him. With a desperate kick he launched himself upwards, following the path that the bubbles had taken.
His head struck air. Furiously, he wheezed and coughed, until the burning in his lungs ebbed away. When the world had stopped spinning and his breathing had returned mostly to normal, panic and fear set in again. Where was he? Was there a way out?
Treading water, Kubo felt his way through the darkness, searching for a way out of the air pocket he found himself in. Around him the ship’s metal hull creaked under the increasing pressure of the ocean, and he felt as though someone were shoving cotton balls in his ears.
His hand brushed up against something like a large wooden box floating on the surface of the water. The bottom was open so that he could put his hand inside, but every few feet there was a beam running across the length of it, and on these beams were metal coils. The top of the box was covered in cloth, and Kubo recognized it as a box-spring like the ones in the crew quarters. He wished he could crawl on top of it, go to sleep, and wake up back in Durban with Tanja by his side telling him it was all just a bad dream, he was safe now.
But he knew this was no dream. The pressure in his ears, the creaking of the ship’s hull and the cool water were all too real. He would surely die here. If it wasn’t water filling his lungs, it would be something else. This air pocket which had saved him would also be his coffin. And yet, he knew that as long as he still breathed, he would struggle onward, driven by some primal compulsion that would not accept death.
Kubo shook his head, told himself to focus on the task at hand, and continued his search of the air pocket. After swimming along the contours of the room, he determined that there was no way out. He could swim from one side to the other in eight strokes one way and in five strokes the other way and the metal ceiling curved downward to meet the waterline on one side. He came across a number of small objects floating about the water, some of which he identified by touch as the cans of beans or vegetables that, as the ship’s cook, he was expected to turn into a wholesome meal. So long as he could get them open, they would sustain him for a while.
He knew he couldn’t stay in the water forever. With every minute that he spent splashing around the room he was wasting energy, and letting his body’s precious moisture seep away through his skin. He pushed the box-spring until it was against one of the flat walls and pulled himself onto it. He could barely get his torso onto the box-spring without it going completely under, his legs would have to stay in the water.
As Kubo lay there in the darkness, his thoughts began to wander. A memory came back to him, one which he had not thought about in a very long time. He was back in his childhood home in Durban, crying because William had been bullying him at school.
Father had shaken his head angrily and said, “You see, why do we send you to school? You bring home only disgrace and–”
“James,” Mother interrupted, “You know he needs to learn if he is going to have a good job some day.”
Father slammed his hand on the table. “But the house is falling apart now and we can’t afford to fix it! You useless boy, you need to work. Crying will not put food on the table, crying cannot make our problems go away.”
“It’s not his fault, he is too young to work!” Mother said. Then to Kubo, “Come, baby, help me in the kitchen. Your father is hungry and it’s fueling his temper.”
Kubo had scurried away from Father, sobbing harder than before, and hid in the kitchen with Mother. She would often let him help in the kitchen when Father got angry, or when the boys from school made him cry. She would comfort him and tell him that everything was going to be alright and she would show him how to fry stokvis until the aroma of it filled the kitchen. He would lose himself in the task of cutting leeks or peeling potatoes, and before long he would have forgotten about Father’s disapproval, and the nasty rumors that William had spread about him at school.
Kubo didn’t know how much time had passed since he had chanced upon the air pocket and dragged himself onto the floating box-spring, but it had felt like days. The hull of the ship had stopped creaking long ago and left behind a numbing silence. He found that it helped his own sanity to splash some water from time to time, as without light to see by and without a sound to listen to, waking and dreaming became indistinguishable.
A few times he had gotten hungry and cracked open one of the cans of vegetables or beans by hitting it against the metal walls of the ship. It was laborious work to get at the food but eventually he had succeeded. Now the cans were all empty.
Wearily, his head throbbing from dehydration, Kubo lay on the box-spring and stared into the blackness. He imagined he was floating through a long tunnel, towards a faint speck of light in the distance. Slowly he moved closer. The light was emanating from below the surface, the water boiling, small bubbles rising through the brine. The light flashed brightly and he had to turn his head away, only now he realized he was not imagining it, he could see the rest of the room.
He turned back, shielding his eyes from the white glow. Behind his fingers, an ethereal being emerged into the air pocket, a tube running out from its mouth and behind its glistening head. It scanned the room with its headlight, powerful flippers brushing back and forth below the surface, and Kubo could see the large air tanks strapped to its back. A wreck diver had stumbled upon his prison cell! He could not let himself be mistaken for a corpse. Hands outstretched, he threw himself off the box-spring with a desperate splash, catching hold of the startled diver’s arm. He clung onto that bastion of life, hugging the arm like he was little Zara’s hand wrapped around a pinkie finger.
About the Author
Rohan Weeden · University of Alaska Fairbanks
Rohan Weeden is a Software Engineer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and winner of the 2020 Farthest North Fiction Contest for undergraduate students. He holds degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics and is an avid fiddler and violinist. He has played music across the United States as well as in a number of local bands and the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. When he’s not busy playing for contra dances, you can find him on the dance floor.
About the Artist
Scott Gathright · Palo Alto College, San Antonio, TX
Scott Gathright is a photographer based out of San Antonio, TX. He received his Associate of Arts with an emphasis in Photography in May 2022 from the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio. His eclipse work has also been showcased in other college publications. Scott continues to focus on his astrophotography in the Texas Hill Country by capturing not only lunar eclipses, but meteor showers, milky way time lapse, and solar eclipses as well.