Each week, for nine weeks, writer Peter Vaughan will be sharing his beautiful short story Safia Sails on the blog. You can read the previous chapters below the current one. Peter is a published writer and the winner of several short-fiction competitions, you can buy his first book Nespo from Biot Books.
🌙Safia Sails ⛵️
Needless to say, the mad anticipation of the coming days rid her of any real sleep, but the next morning Mr Pelle explained that he would make sure the boat was in fully working order before she used it, and he sent her off to school. Safia wore her happiness as a strawberry wears its seeds, and everyone noticed her excitement, even berry-red Mr Birch, who was as testy and tempestuous as ever. ‘I hope that you are rested enough to make it through today’s lessons.’ He grumbled, as she took her usual seat. She did not reply, a little from embarrassment, but more so because of the inner satisfaction that she felt, knowing what she could look forward to. Remembering what Mr Pelle had told her, she felt no need to glance towards the windows that morning, though she did not completely understand his words of “waxing”. The moon would not be there today, she knew, but as her expedition was planned, she was certain that it would reappear soon enough.
Relieved of her usual distraction, Safia found the experience of schooling to be wholly different from what she had come to expect. She felt as though she had never actually noticed the arrangement of the classroom; there was a large blackboard with all kinds of indecipherable scribblings on it, and that much she remembered. As could she recall the rows of other young girls, all dressed in the same grey uniform and all sitting towards the board, where stood the rotund and red, the Mars-like figure of their teacher. There were too many desks in each row, and too many rows for the space, and there were too many pupils for the desks, so that some had to be shared. As though her attention span had altered the light from the stained windows, everything in the room had grown in warmth to her, and shrunk in distance. Covering almost every inch of the cream coloured walls were posters and informative signs concerning every subject, from the pupation of caterpillars to the conjugation of verbs. She understood little or nothing of them all, as a traveller leafing through foreign menus, but her attention soon fell on a lunar chart at the back of the class, and was instantly arrested.
There had been the general sound of learning in the classroom, the almost endlessly drone of Mr Birch and the odd remark or answer from some student, but the air was suddenly hushed, and as though they carried a weight, Safia felt the eyes of her fellow pupils on her. She twisted in her chair to face the board, and the fat man was glaring expectantly at her. ‘Yes, you; Safia, do you care to answer the question?’ He said, and she began to blush.
‘I didn’t hear the question, sir.’ Her face was angled halfway between his eyes and the back of the person in front of her. She was assuming the position of a child in discipline, and had learned the appropriate manoeuvres and tentative vocal inflections over some tedious and repetitive years.
‘And why didn’t you hear the question?’ He begged, ‘I wasn’t paying attention.’ She replied, a phrase that she had learned from him.
‘I see. If you had been listening, you would be able to answer it quite easily.’
There was a silence, almost broken in spite of the efforts of the other children to keep in their giggling. ‘Well?’ He urged, as if the two were reading from a script.
‘What was the question, sir?’
‘I asked you what it was that you were looking at.’
Taking this as a signal, some of the children laughed a little. ‘Nothing.’ She said, her head lowering further.
‘Nothing?’ He repeated.
‘Well, alright then. Getting back to where we were…’ He said, and he continued to growl for some time about things that entirely failed to interest her, though the other children seemed eager to keep up with him.
When the day’s learning was done, and textbooks were thrown into satchels slung over the shoulders of all the children, Safia waited in her chair while the others gleefully filed past her into the corridor. Throughout the lessons, her eyes had resisted the chart and the window, instead analysing the metamorphic room. The space became soundless as the tapping feet and harsh reverberations dissipated in the hallways and died behind closing doors. Enjoying this quiet, she tiptoed to the lunar chart and stared silently at the degenerative transformation of the moon from a white orb to a conspicuous patch of night sky. There were symbols and annotations at the side of each stage of metamorphosis, and large sections of script above and below the images, but she could make neither head nor tail of them. She gathered that there was a pattern of disappearance, but could not judge the length of time between each vanishing. A little frustrated, she observed the next poster, a spread of varying spider-webs, each belonging to some colourful genus. She began to move towards it, but when she lowered her forward foot, the wooden floorboard creaked as if caught unawares.
From the front of the class there suddenly came a curious sound; she turned, and saw Mr Birch reclining in his chair, visible now amid some minor mountains of paperwork. He had let out a small hoot of surprise, presumably from discovering that he was not alone in the room; but the melodious tone had descended to a rather characteristic noise, like the lowest note of a saxophone, when he realised whose company he was in. The note rose again, and flowed into his sentence, ‘Ah, it’s you; and that’s what you were looking at.’ He said, rising and approaching like a hot air balloon. He could not comfortably fit between the tables and chairs, and turned sideways, bumping from seat to seat on his way to her. Though not embarrassed this time, she kept a deferential silence and bowed her head a little. He swept a glance over the entire back wall, a preparatory act, readying his brain to recall, at any moment, every small piece of the knowledge there.
Mr Birch was, quite like his students, much changed by the ringing of the final school bell; the children handed in their quietude with their answer sheets, and went bursting through the corridors, jubilant and colourful, but Mr Birch altered in reverse. He was a colourful man, with beetroot cheeks and eyes of a discordant blue, but when his pupils departed, in a deluge of tolling tin and raucous shrieks, he quit his own bursting; his booming baritone voice left him, and he became reserved and introspective. Until Safia’s footfall had disturbed him, he had been peacefully falling into a pleasant evening mood; he had risen to his usual grouchiness to approach her, but he had been tainted by his presumed solitude, and he could not regain his cantankerous, tutorly air. He asked her, ‘Interested in the lunar chart, are you? Or is it the spiders?’
‘The moon, sir.’
‘I thought it had been. What is it that interests you?’
‘I wanted to know when it was coming back.’ She said, and he frowned,
‘The moon is gone, like this.’ She pointed to the appropriate image.
‘Yes, that’s a new moon, see?’ He replied, holding his own finger near the adjacent text. She seemed a little confused. ‘It’s a new moon now, and it will wax,’ The word that she didn’t know, ‘and then it will be full, and then it will wain.’ He drew his hand over the poster as he described it, though he could see that the idea was beyond her. ‘It all happens over a fortnight, you know?’ He said, folding his arms, ‘Two weeks, roughly, from new moon to full moon.’
Her puzzlement subsided vaguely, and she muttered to herself with some disappointed, impatient grumbles. ‘Two weeks.’
‘Two weeks?’ He asked, and she raised her face to look into his eyes. A feeling of being found out made her look away, and she darted off home; Mr Birch watched her leave, and stood in the wood-lined and cream-coated room, wondering for a time, but he had found nothing out. Mr Pelle confirmed it to her: she would have to wait about two weeks to make her journey. He said it was no worry, that she should enjoy the anticipation.
Safia lived with Mr Pelle and was an orphan. Being the age of seven, she was old enough to remember her parents, but young enough to have grown into familial comfort with her guardian. She kept an unkempt bob of black hair that framed her face like a fur hat. She was skinny, tanned all year long, and seemed an active, healthy child, to the pleasant surprise of those acquaintances that had known her Mother and Father. They had been important people in Port Blush, busybodies who buzzed about the place like benevolent flies, and when they had died, in some tragic triangulation of chance, it was as though the air had grown less balmy, and the night’s beauty had slightly faded.
On the lantern lit causeway astride the muddy harbour, where only a few fishing boats remained anchored in the brackish ground, Safia might be seen sitting on the shingle barrier, or near the unlighted end of the granite pier, on any cloudless evening. She would be lost there, her eyes unfailingly turned towards the vaulting band of innumerable sparks, and she’d be searching for something that only one blessed with the beautiful irrationality of youth would look for. She had never been to the moon, but something about its tooth-white face and its crater dimples had always attracted her. There was a distinct familiarity in its bright, round disposition, on its brows, nose and stippled chin, which reminded her of her Father; whenever she looked up at it, and it stared benignly back down, its ridges and ranges loomed sentimentally.
At school she’d lose concentration and suddenly a teacher’s hard hand would grasp her forearm and twist her around, and she’d be by a window, having thoughtlessly wandered over, because sometimes the moon came out in the day to see her. Mr Birch didn’t like Safia at all, but he was a fat, stressful man, with a red face and sharp, ashen hair. He wore his trousers too high up, and above his stretched belt, too many of his buttons were done. His shoes were very tight and awfully shiny. He would wail at her and lead her back to her seat, sometimes up to ten times a day, and she’d go red for a moment, as well. The other children in the class would snigger at her, and she didn’t have any friends, but she would soon lose focus of them all and begin to stare through the window again, with her chin resting in her palm.
Mr Pelle, though not an orphan, was similarly separated from his paternal beginnings; he had been exiled from his motherland after a somewhat unloved upbringing. He was a cagey creature from a brood of sinister, ambitious siblings. He was a tall, spindly man with uncommonly long legs that he never straightened, as though always ready to move. Everything about him was thin and extensive, and his skin was so colourless that it almost seemed translucent. Round, dark, glistening eyes dominated his face, and his head was small and hairless; he was quite the opposite of Safia, being many times her own age. Despite, or perhaps because of their differences, he doted on her like a daughter, and she looked up to him as an uncle.
Safia was of the outdoor variety of child, with perpetually grazed knees and palms, dirtied clothes, torn cuffs and the like. Mr Pelle, conversely, was of the indoor category of man, the kind who once had ventured into the world, and perhaps struck by a cruel misfortune, had retreated inwards and become painfully perceptive, with eyes for low lighting, and skin alert to the slightest sensation, having forgotten the constancy of the free wind. He had become a web builder, to put it shortly; the scuttling type, who had swapped daring for cunning. A long time ago, he had been a huntsman of some sort, wolfing his way across forest floors; also, he had been a fisherman, a diving bell, a line caster, but by now those former occupations had become enchanting bedtime stories, and he even spun them out as if they were as old as the myths that the town priest told at mass, and the parables that the teachers passed on at school.
Port Blush itself was a young and beautiful harbour-town that sat, dangling its legs off the western edge of the island, and Mr Pelle’s house gilded a green rise overlooking the waterfront. It’s all but disappeared now, having slipped, over some years, into the sea. When it still straddled the shoreline, from the design you could tell that its architects had considered electric street lighting and automobiles to be novelties or fantasies, for there had been no accommodation made for them. As often happens, the people that settled there had grown into their surroundings, and their minds had been made never to make room for any approaching change. The resolution of the town’s inhabitants was like that of its harbour wall, which stood strong, being only a few dozen years old, and kept every wave at bay.
Unfortunately for the townsfolk and the harbour, time and waves roll endlessly together, and the seawall is now a protruding groove in the ocean floor; but even before that, the stubborn port-dwellers had made way for children and grandchildren. Most of these descendants had kept up the ancestral struggle; cracks were routinely patched over with cement, but the sea had squeezed into the porous stone, and reparations were in vain. There were some in favour of modernisation, but the veto was forever held by the disagreeable, and this resulted in a general exodus from the settlement, when it became clear that the place, though young and beautiful, was never ageing in the direction of change. The progressives all drove east, to the capital, or flew to some southern land, where things were busier and more ugly. The stone houses and church, the inn on the corner and the old boathouse were left to quiet serenity; not quite abandoned, but certainly unstrained.
Not all those that stayed behind were interested in conservation; some had remained because they couldn’t afford to leave, or because there was nothing beyond the town for them. There hadn’t been an enormous variety of people to begin with, and by the time the dust of the departed had fallen to the ground, the place was barely above water. There were many more problems than there were pairs of eyes, so that no matter how much attention one part of town received, some other segment went unwatched, and slid further into shoddy gloom.
It is doubtless that the night possessed the greatest of Port Blush’s loveliness, because the air was clear, as though washed by the encroaching ocean, and copious, colourful stars were unveiled over it whenever the day departed. Safia was quite aware of this, and was drawn to the seawall at every opportunity. The stars are unmoved by the wind and the water, instead twisting with the Earth’s turn, though so slowly that any eye that cares to gaze is fooled into ascribing them a fixed eternity. In a crumbling domain, an island realm, in a world that runs out, the highest beauty belongs to the eternal. Malleable stone, splitting glass, rotting timber and rent metal are all pitiable attempts at resisting the slow onslaught of time and waves; those are the two forces that demonstrate the strength that no human production can outlast. To observe the constructions that jut up from the shore is to witness a longstanding confrontation with the world, as clear as the frontier where the sea meets the sand.
Eternal as all this is, the bright, island warmth that lingered in spite of those oceanic powers was equally magnificent. During the heat of the day a mysterious, ancient feeling seeped from the stonework; wandering the paths or coming up the slope after a swim, one recognised the buildings for their true purpose: that men and women would enter their doors, and that the slabs in the streets were laid for shoes to slap against them. All this goes away with the sun, and the conflict between night and day, between mannish creations and worldly deconstruction continues, for as long as there is stone for the sea to lap against.
Safia had also been aware of this conflict, in some way or another, and had rebelled against it in the form of fantasy. She was always escaping, always returning, much like the moon, and dearly, more than anything else she wanted to join it, and be fixed in its tantalising orbit, dependable and yet aloof. She wanted to peer down at the town, rather than look up from it.
On a perfect night, with a midnight sky as strewn with stars as a tree is with leaves, a sliver of yellow moon was slipping down through the air, and Safia was perched upon the little rise in Mr Pelle’s tangled garden. Arms of angry brambles were rattling in the wind, but they could not reach up to her, because the breeze grew bolder as the verge climbed, and the branches could hardly bear the stretch. Behind her, the old house breathed through an open window or two, and the white stones of its composition looked like sand in the glow. The moon ran down a highway of twinkling lights as if being lowered on a rope. Ahead, a cobblestone path interrupted the lawn that went rolling down to the harbour and the water. The wind ruled these spaces and dictated what roots could take hold, and which seeds could be released. Bringing her gaze down to the grass beyond her knees, and seeing how the daffodils there, forlorn as they were without the sun, tilted and waved, she saw how an invisible hand was running across their tops, and how it left them swinging as it caressed the rest of the fauna. Tips of stems and leaves of weeds were chattering as it passed, and it trundled down, over the swept ground, toward the slabs of civilisation. It pulled on her, too, and tore the drowsiness of the hour from her eyes, and the longer she kept them on the limber greenery, the greater number of sticks and flowers, of buds and blossoms that she could see.
Safia watched with awe as it swayed the dark lanterns and left the obscure, painted sign above the inn’s door swinging, and singing with an oily groan. It leapt over the wall, into the harbour, and the boats that floated there were tugging on the ropes that held them anchored; the dust had fallen, the wind was naked again, but she could see how it ran upon the surface, leaving waves behind it, sprinting from corner to corner with a soundless, modest gait. Then it spread, unfurling itself like the wings of the night, and it flew out above the open water, and every now and then there were traces of it slipping across the sea, as a bird would scar the surface with its outstretched feathers. It was gliding towards the white face, which had lowered, almost to the horizon; it was leaving Port Blush with a beautiful farewell. Behind the house, dawn was rising from some unnamed colour.
Though it was already far away, and she could no longer see its wounds on the water, she knew that the wind was meeting the moon. They had an appointment at the edge of the day, at the precipice of the world, and they were racing to it with celestial speed. It was in those silent and silvery hours, before the loudness of the golden sun could interrupt her, that Safia pondered for the first time the possibility of reaching the moon. She had seen, in disguised glimpses, the vessel that would bear her, like a wild creature that could rear and go galloping towards her aspirations.
She hardly slept that night, and was told off in class the next day for dozing off; when asked why she was so tired, she did not tell Mr Birch, whose swollen, cranberry face was putting her off. She began to feel more like herself in the evening, and while the tinkling sounds of Mr Pelle came out from the kitchen and she reclined on an old couch, she began to relay some of her thoughts to him. ‘Have you ever left Port Blush?’ She asked, and his voice came from down the corridor,
‘What was that, dear?’
‘Have you ever left here?’
‘Oh, yes. You know, I’m not from here, originally.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘From the east.’ He said, ‘A long way away. Why do you ask?’
Safia thought for a moment, ‘I don’t know. Why did you come here?’
‘Well, it’s quiet here; the rest of the island is rather busy.’
‘Isn’t it good?’
‘It has its charms, I suppose. There are so many people around, though.’
She thought of her classroom, the only place that she ever saw more than a handful of people at once. ‘Like my school?’ She asked.
‘No, dear; your school is very quiet compared to the rest of the island. In the capital, the classes there have thirty pupils in each room, and people wandering the hallways.’
‘Why are they in the hallways?’
‘Because there isn’t room for them in the classrooms. In the streets, there are people everywhere, and the buildings are all full, as well.’
‘That’s why you left?’
‘Yes, I was always being disturbed. It’s very hard for little people like us in the capital, you have to be careful not to be trodden on, or knocked down.’
‘Oh, yes; there are cars everywhere, and they make a lot of noise, and they move too quickly, you can barely get out of their way.’
‘That’s strange.’ She said, and he rejoined,
‘It is strange, dear; you’re better off here.’
Safia went quiet, and thought about cars and busy streets. These were things very foreign to her, and she strained to remember what cars even looked like. She could only imagine their roaring sound from far away, as sometimes floats over the town from the motorway, some miles to the east. She knew that they were large metal shells, and that they came in many different colours, but she did not know how they moved, though she believed Mr Pelle when he said that they were very fast. Equally alien to her was the thought of a busy street; she’d only ever known the deserted paths of Port Blush, and she’d imagined that other towns were just the same. A boulevard of cars parked bumper to bumper, or an office with ten floors and fifty windows, it was not easy to picture all this, and she soon found her thoughts fleeing to the familiar scenes of the town, with its empty streets and near disintegrated establishments; and then she was seeing the moon again, and she could hardly help herself asking, ‘Can you go to the moon?’
Mr Pelle’s noises stopped suddenly, ‘The moon?’
‘Yeah.’ She said, and after a few seconds his clinking continued,
“It is not inconceivable.”
She sat up. ‘Really? You can go there?’
‘Yes, it can be done. Why would you want to go?’
‘I’ve always wanted to, I really want to go there!’
She got off of the old couch and went to the window, expecting to see the face looking down, but it was not there; still, she was content to wait for it.
‘And how do you think you’d get there, dear?’
‘I don’t know.’ She replied, a little disheartened.
‘Of course, it is a very complicated business, a lunar expedition. The conditions must be right, and then you must be quite precise in your planning.’
‘Do you know how to get there?’
‘Oh, yes.’ He said, nonchalantly; this made her more excited than before.
‘Have you been to the moon, Mr Pelle?’
‘Hmm, no I never got there myself.’ His rattling ceased again, and his light feet came along the corridor. ‘Though I know how it is done.’
‘It’s on the wind, isn’t it?’ She asked, turning from the window to see her guardian’s head coming sideways through the door, smiling.
‘You are very clever. Indeed, the wind is the way.’
He came into the room carrying a bowl in each hand. He nudged his head in the direction of a small table by the far wall, and set the bowls down there. When Safia sat with him and had begun to tuck into her soup, he continued. ‘You cannot get to the moon while it is above you; some have tried, but I wouldn’t believe them. The only way to get there is when-’
‘It sets!’ She said, with a half filled mouth.
‘Indeed. There’s a time in the night, though sometimes it stays hidden, when the moon sits out on the water. Then it goes below, and the sun comes up. It doesn’t stay there forever, and that’s the trouble; you must be quick, and you must know where you are going if you want to catch it. It’s best to try when the moon is full.’
‘Why didn’t you make it?’
‘Well, I suppose I might have if I had tried; you see, I had laid a guide line down in the harbour-’
‘The very same; I had a line coming out from the boathouse, it was not as it is now, in those days. And in my little fishing boat, I set myself off in the middle of the night, and I went out and out and still further out. I went so far out that my line was taut, and I couldn’t go any further without letting go of it. When I was there, however,’ Safia hovered over the bowl, ‘I saw the moon, closer than I’d ever seen it before; I could see all the details of its face.’ Her eyes went wide with wonder. ‘And it fell into the water, though very slowly, without a sound.’
‘And then what happened?’
‘It started to sink; but it is so large, it was rising up above me, that it took a very long time to go all the way into the sea.’
‘Did you go to it?’
‘No, no I didn’t. When you are that close to it, it is very bright, and my eyes do not like things like that. I stayed in my boat, with the rope to the town tight against the water behind me; I watched the moon go down into the deep, and then I came back, because the sun was on its way.’
Safia looked to the window, and out across the harbour to the ocean. ‘How far out were you?’
He leaned forward, ‘All the way.’
‘All the way out?’
‘As far as you can go, unless you want to fall off the edge.’
She shuddered at the thought and tried to collect herself, and to come up with a plan. He continued, ‘I’ve still got that boat, you know.’
‘Of course, but I don’t use it anymore. No longer a diving bell, I prefer to stay dry, these days.’ He smiled.
‘Where is it?’
‘It’s still in the boathouse, by the water. Why don’t you go and see it, while the sun is still up?’
‘How will I know which one’s yours?’
‘You’ll know it when you see it, don’t worry; finish your dinner, and run along.’
Safia poured the remaining soup straight from the bowl into her mouth, and hurriedly pulled on a pair of shoes; in a few minutes she had crossed the wild lawn and the paths, and was running down the less civilised arm of the harbour. Here it was partially hidden behind a cliff, quite barren, with only a few abandoned buildings, formerly restaurants and shops that had dried up and degenerated along with the population. At the end of the arm, down a stone stairway, was the old boathouse. A tired, timber assemblage, it had been invaded by damp and insects, and under every peeling lick of white paint there seemed some rummaging hive of many-legged intruders. Pushing the door open, she saw the large, rectangular space, lit naturally by the dusky sky, which glared through holes in the rotten roof. She stood on a kind of mezzanine level that ran along the edge and looked down on the calm water, where still some dingy boats were nestled together along a wharf.
The vessels were huddled like survivors, rubbing and touching together as if for comfort; here and there the husks of discarded crafts lay in bits, on the water, dragged into a corner, or against the wall on the walkway. The remains had been almost hollowed by woodworm, chewed out by lice and coated with spiders’ webs. The disused hulls and oars quite reminded Safia of those transparent skins that arachnids leave around their nests, and she knew that those still floating, patiently, had life in them yet, despite the awful smell and stale, deathly feel of the room.
Making her way to them, she stepped lightly on the wharf and it groaned a little, but let her pass. They were lined up, roped together like horses, and she inspected them one by one, wondering to herself who of these forgotten animals could carry her. The first of them, closest to the steps, and more tainted by the unfortunate housing, was a sorry beast, malnourished and untamed, thinned to the point of uselessness, though resembling from a distance the form that it might once have had. Next to that, the second boat was superficially superior, less warped and cracked, but looking into it, clearly at bottom there was some grievous fault, and the craft carried water like a colander, and it seemed a wonder that it even kept its buoyancy in these restful waters. The third in sequence was more promising, and had no obvious injuries; it was layered in dust and webs and whatnot, but underneath all the layers of time there was colourful paint coming through, dulled sheens of orange and red, coats marking a once tender affection. It had a name, but she did not stop to wipe it clean and read; she progressed onto the finale, knowing that this penultimate vessel was not Mr Pelle’s, and that it was not hers to commandeer.
Safia was taken aback; the last craft on the rope, held fast by an ancient knot, was in the best condition of all. She knew at once that it was his, and hers, as it somehow managed to remind her of him; it was longer and thinner than the other boats, and had a dustless, grey glaze over the uncorrupted wooden panels, the colour of invisibility. The boathouse, she thought, had never noticed that this boat was here, and had left it to itself. Feeling rather daring, she steadied herself with a hand on the stern, and planted both feet on the gaunt seat that crossed it. She smiled as her miniscule weight urged the sleeping thing from side to side; there came from the flank a tiny splash, and she knew that it was roused. Here was the creature for her, practiced in planetary pursuit, undestroyed by time and waves and restless now, eager to eat up the wind, and skilful in the search for the horizon. The sun was almost gone now, and Safia went swiftly home, with the adrenal joy of a returning explorer.
Coming through the open door, she explained everything that she had found, and Mr Pelle seemed pleased with her discoveries; he was particularly happy that the insects hadn’t devoured his little boat, and he seemed rather eager to visit the housing for himself. In any case, he revealed to her the next thing that she needed to do in order to get to the moon; she had to know where it would land. A little nonplussed at first, she asked him, ‘Doesn’t it land straight out?’
He wagged his spindly index, ‘Not always, dear; look now, and tell me where the moon is.’
She went over to the window and saw that the sunless sky, a purple dome, was also moonless. She went out to the garden to have a broader view, but the face was clearly missing; coming back in, she told him, ‘It’s not there.’
‘That’s right, but there’s no need to worry, because we will need quite a few days to prepare ourselves, and while the moon is waxing we’ll make a note of where it hits the horizon.’
The sixth chapter of Safia Sails will be posted next Wednesday, 26th April.