An Idle Heart

Ex-Captain Solo, a simple man, wakes up with a complicated problem. He passed out at the bottom of the bottle last night, but this problem is a pain he has never felt before. It aches from a motion that seems to be coming in like the tide—strange, because he knows all about headaches, hangovers, and even the pain from stupor sleep on the deck in his underwear beneath the sun for hours.

He’s always controlled pain by ignoring whoever caused it. Somehow he cannot turn his back on this one like all the heartaches that he either slept off or drank to sleep, anonymous like the way he preferred to talk through doors or give the silent treatment to his friendless life. No, this is a hard knot that hurts in all directions and everywhere at once, a knot no sailor can untie. It is tight as a rope that seems to be pulling him somewhere and holding him back at the same time, though he hasn’t moved from his bunk today. He hasn’t checked to see if he’s gone off course, but it wouldn’t matter since the boat engine died months ago and left him to the will of the currents in a ghost ship crewless and all alone—but not lonely, he says, the way he’s always wanted it. His first mate went overboard, walked the plank long ago into faceless memory.

This new nagging problem makes a sound, sometimes like a botswain’s whistle, sometimes like a ship’s mast creaking. If only it had a shadow, so he could see what shape it’s in without touching what made it. It can’t be changes he’s made: Nothing is different in his little cabin; he hasn’t cleaned or moved anything. There is so much trash and leftover plates and bottles lying around that nothing could move if it wanted to. It’s not a stowaway rat rustling around this undergrowth either. He hates rats and is pretty sure he’s clubbed them all.

He’s hoping this problem will go away, so he won’t have to get up, because he’s seen enough ups and downs of the sea and sun for a lifetime. There comes a point where sunrise and sunset look the same. But in these dead waters, it’s looking now like only another hurricane could wash his troubles away, or maybe just pour saltwater on his wounds. If only he had the youth and skills of a young boatswain now, he’d outsail all troubles of the world, keeping the sun at high noon, using his own arms as oars if he had to, instead of knotting them up around his chest. If only he could win back his navy stripes and win the battles at sea again. If only he were that young man whose looks could always kill. Now all he has is that problem and the whistle of wind in empty rum bottles.

Silence isn’t supposed to be loud and feel tighter and tighter, almost at his throat. Something is guilty of disturbing the peace: His heart makes a cracking noise; his back moans like a shipwreck, but these are not the sounds he cannot abide. The one that bothers him is seductress, silence that is painful and long lost at sea, yet whispers now like a distant wave beneath where the North Star should be. Maybe it’s just frayed nerves, not the frayed rope I’m at the end of, he jokes to the helm tied too tight to turn. And then the sound of crashing waves washing in-out, in-out, leaving behind a deafening silence that finally drops its cold anchor.

The sound of a heart that’s stopped beating. The sound of the ocean in its shell.

—first published in Ghost City Review