From Boats

From Boats by Andrew BattershillLong ago, adventurers were not rich vacationers. Rather, they were the people who left their homes for other places far enough away that they’d probably never return. Adventurers worked small, hard jobs. They hitchhiked and squatted and accepted charity. They were men and women who were defined by their lack of belonging, and, more often than not, they ended up in drunken piles on freight trains.

Josiah Harrison was such a man, and, after almost no deliberation, he headed to the Northern Labrador, in order to become part of a trip to the Arctic Circle. The plan was for him to accompany a scientific expedition, carrying things and hunting for them. The scientists, with their clean pelts and full sets of teeth, had always treated our hero more as a packhorse than a person. They were oblivious to Josiah’s real plans, which consisted of finding and killing exotic Arctic beasts, killing all the members of the expedition, stealing their equipment (and dry goods), and meeting up with a crew with whom he’d sailed Cape Horn about a year prior, who were now attempting to find the Northwest Passage.

Gregory Francis, on the other hand, was approaching his arctic adventure with nothing but good intentions, and longstanding, firmly rooted anxieties, in his heart. Gregory was a zoologist, and had recently secured a tenure track position at the third most reputable university in New York City. The Scientist walked with a long, loping gait that seemed to generate power only from the hips, as if the bottom half of his body had somewhere to be in about an hour, and the top half would just as soon stay home. Although he was not an expert on any arctic animals he was chosen to accompany the trip in part because he had developed a reputation for sure-handedness in dealing with live test subjects, and in part because Dr. Williamson had withdrawn from the trip to get three abscessed teeth removed.

Unfortunately for Josiah, the head scientist, Dr. Sherwood, was a naturally cautious man, and due to a grievous misunderstanding of a common sailors axiom he kept the team grounded in Labrador for one week of perfect weather. While Josiah kept his drinking secret and restricted it to the area around the staff door of the hotel restaurant, he realized that he was desperate for the Arctic. There were still trees where they were, but they were starting to get sparse, and he could almost see and smell the flat, white land. But he couldn’t see or smell it; he’d never been there, not himself.

They waited the week out until a massive Arctic storm blew across. The storm lasted three more weeks before the expedition was called off. Dr. Sherwood decided that, since Josiah had been hired unofficially, he would have to find his own way home. Gregory was the most junior member of the team, and was tasked with delivering the news to the small, quiet, sad looking man with all the facial hair.

For the sake of clarity it is perhaps time to describe the hair that Josiah kept on his face and surrounding regions. It was not so much that our hero liked, or had any feelings about beards, rather Josiah did not in any way care about his physical appearance. And so the hair grew unabated, but not in the pattern generally associated with masculine facial hair, more in the style of animal-pelt rug with a lot of cigarette burns in it. Massive tufts of thick, coarse hair protruded from certain parts of his face and neck. Almost as if in recompense for the hair’s thickness, there were large patches that were entirely bald, and no matter how long the hair grew it never covered this skin.

Gregory had always avoided Josiah. He had experienced first hand the caged rage of the common Wolverine, of which he was reminded when watching Josiah hold his own wrist to keep his hand from shaking at trip meetings. But Gregory didn’t dislike the man, in fact, having identified the reason for his discomfort with Josiah, and having situated it entirely in his own insecurities, he wanted to be kind.

The plan had been for Gregory to fire our hero after the staff meeting (Sherwood made the whole team, including Josiah, meet three times a week), but Josiah had finally broken the seal on his new-found public sobriety and had started off the morning with nine stiff belts of gin, followed by breakfast (mostly a liquid breakfast), followed by vomiting, followed by lunch (mostly a liquid lunch), followed by falling asleep in a snow bank fourteen yards from the hotel and, right around the time of the meeting, passing out.

Gregory waited in the lobby of the hotel for four hours, at which point the senior scientists decided to check Josiah out of the hotel and put his things outside. His room was on their dime, after all. Gregory didn’t protest, but didn’t feel good about it either, so he waited, not outside but huddled by a window, for Josiah to return. This was not an act of courage on Gregory’s part, rather he somehow failed to realize that Josiah would be upset, drunk, and dangerous when he got home and found himself abandoned in Northern Labrador.

Finally, just as Gregory’s long neck was starting dip with fatigue, Josiah emerged. Gregory did not see our hero at first, but instead caught the glimpse of a small, round looking snowdrift. The object was not hurrying, but coming right toward the hotel, leaving a long comet’s tail of loose snow in its wake. Gregory’s heart was beating heavily as he opened the door, and when he saw Josiah’s form emerge he took two steps back inside, but did not close the door.

“What the fuck did you do with my stuff?”

“They, um, they decided to move your things and check you out. You missed the meeting.”

Josiah laughed. As his chest moved back and forth, and as he beat the porch with his hands, the snow fell off Josiah, and he appeared, though wet and delirious, as a recognizable person again. Gregory relaxed his weight against the doorframe and waited for Josiah to stop laughing and then wrapped his blanket closely around himself and sat down on the step next to the adventurer. Josiah had stopped laughing and had the remains of several tears frozen to his face. Josiah stood up and without thinking Gregory followed him.

Our hero tilted his head and looked to the sky. Then without adjusting his gaze he reached forward and tried to pat Gregory on the cheek. Gregory, moved by the gesture, said: “I’m really sorry. I wish I could help.”

The Adventurer’s face twitched back to its customary shape, an arrangement that communicated shrewd measurement being taken. “You can help, you can help.”

“How?” Gregory was excited that Josiah had judged him possibly helpful, a capable ally.

“You can help me steal some food and clothes. You know where they keep it all.”

As quickly as Gregory’s hopes had taken sail they’d been dashed on the rocks of ill-considered moral principles, fear, and career ambition. “I can’t do that. I, I can’t.”

Josiah did not smile, but did turn to look at Gregory for a second. “Why not? I’ll probably die if I leave here by myself. Where will I go?”

The young scientist had no answer for Josiah and, not being a man to talk without something to say, he remained completely silent.

Josiah tilted his open mouth back to the sky. “Well, at least I got some real snow experience. I’d only ever seen shit like this on boats, or wait…”

“From boats?”

“Yeah, yeah. Right. From boats. So why can’t you? Afraid of losing your job?”

Gregory kicked the railing with the toe of his boot, causing snow to fall off it and get picked up instantly by wind. “A little bit. But that’s not the main thing. It’s wrong. I can’t steal. It’s wrong.”

Josiah adjusted his neck posture and considered Gregory very carefully once more. “Right. Your conscience. I’m going to go die in the cold now. Goodbye.” He grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder in one motion.

“Don’t you want to come inside and warm up first?”

Josiah, already partially obscured by the wind and snow, turned all the way around and waved. “No thanks, that’ll just make my fingers feel like they’re on fire, and then I’d still die.” And without saying anything else, or visibly hinting that he understood this as a particular hardship, he turned back around and walked slowly away. Even as Josiah kept moving Gregory could make out, not exactly his form, but rather the sense of his movement. And then, after only three minutes, Gregory could not even make out the motion of Josiah’s steps through the drift. This was a place and time where walking too far down the street alone was, almost always, a fatal mistake.

Sending Josiah into the cold was the single guiltiest act of Gregory’s life, and he remembered it until his death. As it turns out, not only did Josiah’s secret plans ultimately justify Gregory’s harsh treatment, but Josiah himself would not remember any details (save one, which will be recounted at the end of this history) of his attempted Northern excursion.

***

At the third stop of his journey back to New York, Josiah got in an argument with the tavern owner over cost that ultimately resulted in our hero choking the owner’s thirteen year old daughter unconscious, and shortly thereafter finding new lodgings.

***

Three weeks later, as Gregory Francis considered his moral culpability silently, Josiah decided to set up camp in a small cow pasture. The Adventurer constructed, with all the skill and assurance of necessity, a small, half dugout in which to sleep and was soon resting comfortably.

Having lived most of his life in luggage compartments, ship’s quarters, and tenements Josiah slept in a tight, practiced fetal position, and so, out of habit and for warmth’s sake, Josiah did not stretch out flat as he looked at the stars and considered the space above the horizon’s line. He understood precisely his place, relative to north, and did not wonder what was above the stars.

A life full of the rich and squalid experiences had robbed him of the senses of wonder and imagination that generally enliven the tedium of most people’s daily activities and lives. Josiah had undertaken his adventures in part because he could not imagine for himself a life, couldn’t set goals and reach them. He was stuck perpetually in a state of improvisation. And so by this point our hero, although not naturally a clear or quick thinker, had developed an advanced ability to ad-lib.

As Josiah fell asleep, not questioning the stars but comforted by them, Gregory Francis spent several minutes collecting himself and carefully wiping his face before he passed out. When he awoke his face felt stuck together, and he used his left hand to confirm that he’d been weeping copiously in his sleep.

***

At the fourth bar of his journey back to New York Josiah bit a blacksmith named James Kleebo’s nose half off in a dispute over the rules of darts.

***

Josiah’s life of adventure had started at five when a man he met on the street used him as a prop in a small-time swindle. The man claimed that Josiah was a mute Russian prince in need of money to get home, but able to offer significant reward once there. There proved to be only one taker, who offered a nickel, which was gladly accepted, but the incident kindled Josiah’s love of excitement. Once, as an eight year old, he stole a horse and sold it, using the money to buy alcohol and a twenty-two-caliber rifle. At his earliest convenience, Josiah left home with only a wheel of cheese and a small bottle of wine, and began his adult life at the age of eleven, hiding in the hold of a ship headed to the Caribbean. His presence was discovered early, but only appreciated after Josiah’s valiant efforts helped defeat the mutiny, which lasted a week and a half and resulted in two-dozen deaths, four of them by Josiah’s own hand. It was also on this trip that Josiah learned to use maps and tie knots.

It had been two weeks since Gregory had been party to murdering that poor, crazed looking man. His pain was not constant, it was the pain of mortal guilt, and as such appeared only sporadically, and with the anxiety’s intensity increased by the long periods for which the guilt had been absent. So it was more than a bit of a surprise to himself and his co-workers when Gregory’s long, spider-like legs and arms seized up, his back straightened with violence and he slid to the floor. He was speaking, not in tongues but not particularly audibly either. The guilt he’d felt in the first couple of days was back now, and stronger.

As Gregory seized uncontrollably, Josiah negotiated the conditions of his three-night rest and recoup stay at the Parsons farmhouse. He could stay, and they would feed him, but first he would have to deal with a marauding woodland boar.

***

At the fifth bar of his journey back to New York Josiah had gambled for 17 straight hours. Having walked in with forty-seven cents in his pocket, by hour nine he had amassed over six hundred dollars.

He retired from the gaming session having lost forty-seven cents.

***

Just three days after his first attack Gregory had already understood (scientifically) that his fits were, quite possibly, permanent. He would bear the illness with grave and quiet dignity, like Howard the Duck. Howard the Duck was a test subject in Gregory’s lab. The plan was to cut small, progressive sections of Howard the Duck’s brain out, to see how much of his physical brain matter he needed to subsist. They were almost at the brainstem now, and, although Howard’s centre of balance and spatial perception were more than a little altered, he bore his cross with a calm, stoic demeanor. There was a strong flavor of poise in the deep wobble with which he stood to face the day.

Our hero had already defeated the boar, and because the battle had been so violent and protracted the Parsons were letting him stay two extra nights.

At dinner that evening Josiah lied about his past, claiming to be an orphan from the Iowa farmlands, as well as promising that he would return in a year to look for work in the region. And, after giving his sugar cake to the Parson’s youngest son Vincent, he retired to his sleeping place in the barn and contemplated his lie. Although he was a man who spoke very little he was having a problem with promises. He mulled over the situation for several minutes and, finding no pragmatic solution, fell asleep.

***

At the sixth bar of his journey back to New York, a young woman at the only occupied table began, at random, to sing hymns in Latin. After the woman had finished singing Josiah turned to the bartender and said: “That’s the sort of shit that’ll remind you of wherever you’re from.”

***

Gregory gradually settled into a new pattern in life. His fits, although frequent, were manageable. He spent the vast majority of his time at home, away from the twists and turns of life likely to trigger his spells. His guilt abated with the speed and subtlety of natural feeling, although the patterns of behavior and anxieties left by its time in his consciousness did not. He hammered away at his work, hoping, as numbers and chemicals slid into one another, to justify his existence, the scientific career he had made wrong before it had begun.

The more Gregory worked on his lifelong project the more desperate he became to solve it. For over twenty years he worked steadily. His body, never more than a doll’s temple, deteriorated further, until by the time he was thirty-nine years old he weighed only one hundred and twenty five pounds. Indeed, the farther away he got from his blood-guilt, and the more progress he made on the noble project undertaken to abate it, the worse his physical state got.

Then, one day, as easily as popping a quarter into a vending machine, Gregory added a chemical to his mixture, and with that his scientific epic was complete. He had cured Glanders, a fatal and contagious horse disease. Wishing to test his cure on real horses, Gregory spent the next week gathering all his mental resources, and then went to the farmer’s market. Nobody at the market had a horse with Glanders, but he was told that Robert Vegetable’s favorite horse, Carrot, was down with the disease at this minute.

Gregory arrived at the Vegetable family farm, and was greeted by Robert’s wife Poppy. After he explained his presence Poppy put down the shotgun and showed Gregory to the barn, where Robert Vegetable, as he had been for most of the day, was sitting on a hay bale, staring at and actively mourning Carrot. Gregory nearly fainted when he saw Robert. The Farmer and his father looked nearly identical, but instead of the rampant partial facial hair Josiah wore, Robert had a two-day partial beard. Instead of a collar of neck hair he had a collar of neck stubble. Robert turned and saw the blood drain from the scientist’s face.

“Who are you? Are you ok?” Robert began approaching the Scientist.

It took Gregory longer than was socially comfortable to answer, during which time Robert walked to the end of the barn. The farmer was less than a foot away and just starting to reach out a sympathetic hand when Gregory said:

“I’m Gregory Francis, and I’m here to cure fucking Glanders.”

Robert’s first reaction was to hug the stranger forcefully, his second was to ask politely for the stranger to temper his language.

Robert paced in a nervous, and inevitable semi-circle as Gregory examined the animal. Gregory snuck several glances at the man. He was younger, and clearly a different person, but, just as anyone wishing to fly would be overjoyed to hover, Gregory was delighted for the opportunity to pursue something reasonably close to redemption.

Robert had never met his father. He lived in rural Manitoba for his whole life, married Poppy when he was seventeen, and died (years later), not in the house in which he was born, but rather in a house that was a forty-minute walk from the house in which he was born.

Gregory administered his shot to Carrot, who whimpered softly and half raised her head before letting it fall gently back. Gregory moved over to the farmer, and held Robert gently by the elbow as he explained what he had done to the animal. If the cure worked the animal would be standing up sometime in the next hour. The ulcerations would take longer to heal but would be gone eventually, leaving only scars. The two men waited, side by side, in silence for over fifty minutes. Gregory closed his eyes after five minutes and kept them closed. Robert never looked away from Carrot.

Fifty-five minutes after the cure was administered Carrot stood weakly, and wobbled towards Robert. He allowed the horse to nuzzle him for about three minutes, then turned around and went to shake Gregory’s hand before pulling him into a tight hug.

“Thank you!”

Robert was surprised to feel the frail scientific genius crying into his shoulder, but decided that the least he could do was maintain the hug, while executing appropriately timed pats on the man’s back and ribs.

***

Josiah survived his trip back to New York. He passed through most of Northern Ontario and rural Manitoba, before crossing the border and sneaking on a train to Boston, then hitching a ride with a travelling salesman into New York. Josiah’s path was filled with the, not random but natural, twists, turns, and diversions of free fun.

Our hero was among the last of the original adventurers, and was (un)fortunate enough to live to an old age. He was a product of his time, and, as was made clear every day, his time had passed. There was no room in the world for hard men like Josiah anymore. Lives like his had been the rock foundation of this new comfort and knowledge the children who surrounded him were afforded, and, like the foundation of a house, he had been left to hold everything up, not allowed into the living room, but relied on and ignored.

And so, Josiah left the city forever. He joined a small band of survivalists who had pooled their resources to purchase a plot of off-the-grid land outside Pouce Coupe, British Columbia. Josiah’s stay at the radical survivalist compound ended when he died shortly following his arrival.

***

Those of you keenly interpreting this history will, at this point, be feeling a strong desire to know what the sole detail of his Arctic adventure that stuck with Josiah was, and it is my distinct pleasure to tell you.

At the second bar of his journey back to New York Josiah composed a lewd poem for the barmaid, Laura. He carved it into the wood of his table, and when she came to clear his bottles she read it with an un-rehearsed smile. They talked as she cleaned up, and in the morning Josiah visited her son Richard at the boy’s grandmother’s house, where he lived. Our hero spent the remainder of the day teaching the boy how to whittle wood with a knife and fish with dynamite. In the afternoon they took a brief break and speculated on the contents of grass, although Josiah himself was not particularly curious.

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Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.