SmokeLong Quarterly

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Last Sight of Land

Story by Heather Peterson (Read author interview) June 28, 2011

art by Gay Degani

Up on deck, a shout for the last sight of land. Bodies push the boy from behind until there he is, squeezed among them, practically lifted off his feet, squinting at the silver strip of home. He feels the heat of all of them around him, the throb and beat of their bodies. He smells their sweat and the seasickness breathing out of them and off their clothing. Next to him, a woman cries into a dirty handkerchief.

He expected to be sorry to see it go. But he isn’t sorry, and he doesn’t see it go. There he still stands, much later, looking out at the far flatness of the sea skitting from under him, the land still there, just a little smaller. He thinks about giving up, but he can’t bring himself to return to the rotten closeness below. He hates the smell, but even more he hates the sounds—the heavy breathing, the groan as someone turns, the farts and belches, the crack of bones stiff from the floor.

Although he doesn’t want it to, his mind strays to the past and to his sister. When she was well, her body thick and strong and her hair wild from her head, boys used to whistle when they saw her run. But she died in bed, herself a spread of bones, her skin the color of bone, her hair flat on the pillow like wet grass. Their mother went right after in a quick sweat.

His father is probably below, sitting on a bunched-up coat, hugging the emptiness between his body and his bent knees.

It’s emptiness the boy feels now, waiting for the land to go. It’s home, he knows, but he wouldn’t even be able to point to his part of the shore from here. It doesn’t look like land anymore, just something that he can tell isn’t sky or sea. He thinks about this, that it isn’t home anymore, it isn’t land anymore, and then he thinks of the girl who died in the night. She’d been screaming for hours without a breath, still a girl. Then, suddenly quiet, she was just a body.

He stood on deck at dawn to watch the sailors sew her into a sack. One of the deckhands told the joke about the servant named Bridget Flaherty as he threaded the needle—how she was on a ship from Ireland with a letter of recommendation, but she dropped it in the sea, and when she asked her old employer for a new one he wrote: “Bridget Flaherty had a good reputation when she left, but she lost it on the way over.”

When they heaved the sack overboard, he leaned on the rail to watch it—not a girl or a body now, but a sack slipping from view, blurring into the dark until there was just water again, like it had never been there to begin with.

Now, waiting for the sea to fill the horizon, he looks down at the water, at the hypnotic slap and froth as it hits the boat. When he brings his head back up, the land is gone.

About the Author

Heather Peterson is currently studying for her M.A. in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in northern England. She is from Boston, Massachusetts, and enjoys the views on America she encounters in the U.K., ranging from apocalyptic to apathetic. She recently had a short story published online by F(r)iction Magazine.

About the Artist

Gay Degani has been nominated here and there for Pushcart consideration, Best Small Fictions, and a few various and sundry honors including the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). Her micro “Abbreviated Glossary” appears in the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fictionedited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro. She occasionally blogs at Words in Placeand is currently working on another novel of suspense.

This story appeared in Issue Thirty-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Two

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