Incident at Sea


To tell the anguish that abounds therein, The language of my tongue cannot begin. But ‘list unto me and I will here explain, The course to steer…

—W. M. Murrell, “Explanation,” Map on Temperance

Of all my fears, the worst is that I’ll choke. God, what an ignominious way to die! You feel your throat catch as if you are caught inside the closing walls of some sick joke; your eyes start welling up—you want to cry— you’ve botched the first thing you were ever taught!

I know whereof I speak. I was aboard my boat one night, accompanied by a drink. With one last absent swig I gulped the garnish, only to swallow, too, the tiny sword it had been speared with…I began to sink. I hit the deck and smelled the dizzying varnish.

I had no brave last words; no gasp of air with which to conjure some; no crew amid whose circling ranks I might soliloquize; no parting shot, no prophecy, no prayer. Then something massive—hammerhead or squid— walloped the boat, which threatened to capsize,

but only tipped so sharply that I slammed against the port rail with fantastic force. The sword flew out and struck the wooden mast— it stuck there like an arrow. “I’ll be damned,” I breathed. I leapt up, got the boat on course, and poured another drink, and not my last…

All of which is to say, I don’t fear death (which, whether slow or sudden, whether dealt by pirate or by pushpin, must entail somehow the awkwardness of loss of breath); I fear sheer carelessness. The fault I felt— knowing my words, at last, deserved to fail.