Sunday, November 7, 2010
Captain Vanilla and the Great Adventure, Part III
Both because it's been too long since the last installment of this story, and because I know that many of you are going to be very, very angry when you read my next post, I am offering something happy.
This is the third part in the saga of Vanilla, a nineteen-year-old captain on a very strange voyage. For those of you who are new or have not been following along, and for those of you who are a little dusty on the details, you can find Part I here and Part II here
Illustrations have been provided by the talented Cheryl de los Reyes Cruz, who may soon be joined by another artist.
They retreated to below decks as the air grew cooler, then watched the enormous red sun go down across the edge of a foreign planet. With no land for it to hide behind, it descended into the dark blue ocean, leaving a cavalcade of glittering stars behind it.
They started as faint lights in the sky, like smooth white stones, and then matured into spectacular diamonds as the sun bade the world goodnight, leaving the heavens a beautiful spectacle of shattered celestial glass.
“The sky doesn’t look like this at home,” Michael said, smiling up at it.
“No,” Stephanie said. “It doesn’t.”
Her voice sounded strange, and when Vanilla looked over he saw a tear sliding down her cheek.
“Stephanie?” he asked.
She looked at him questioningly, and he pointed to her face.
She lifted her hand to her eye, then drew it back, as if startled by the moisture she found there.
“Oh!” she said with a sniff. “I’m sorry. It’s just that it reminds me of something, something I can’t quite remember. It’s just so beautiful.”
From the kitchen, James’s voice called, “I hope everyone likes their steak medium rare!”
Stephanie laughed and rose from her seat.
“I’ll light a fire,” she said, moving over to the fireplace that rested in the wall next to the stairs. After several minutes of fiddling with logs of wood and matches, she had a decent blaze going.
“This will be nice for dinner,” she remarked, staring into the flames. “I didn’t realize how cold it would be here at night.”
Michael put his hand to the pane of the wall-length window.
“It’s already chilly,” he said. When he drew his palm back, it left a fog on the glass.
James continued to cook, and the other three pulled up chairs in front of the fireplace, enjoying a silence unbroken by anything save the crackle of the wood and the quiet whistling from the kitchen.
When the chef was finished, he brought out a large plate heaped with pink steaks.
“I hope it’s alright,” he said. “I had a lot to work with, so it should be; this is filet mignon.”
“Wow,” Stephanie said. “Somebody left us well prepared.”
“There were some greens as well,” James said. “In an actual ice box, can you believe it? I made those, too. Help me with it, will you?”
Stephanie accompanied him to the kitchen, and they returned with asparagus, cauliflower, and a bottle of wine.
The vast chamber seemed naked; large enough to seat two or three families, the dining room table was bare except for the small space near the back of the room occupied by four people. Vanilla, as captain, sat at the end, a position which put his back directly to the fire.
He smiled with comfort as James parceled out steaks and vegetables and Stephanie passed round glasses and the wine bottle. When it came to him, Vanilla looked at the dried paper wrapped around the aged glass.
It read only: Vinum Aegypticus, 1323BC.
“1323BC?” Vanilla whispered. “It can’t be…”
James took the first sip of the wine, and his eyes closed in ecstasy.
The other three tipped their glasses to their mouths and let liquid gold pour down their throats. It was like grape juice and honey, incredibly sweet. Vanilla’s tongue lolled about, drinking in the rich taste.
“I hope your cooking can compare to that,” he joked to James.
“I hope so,” the boy replied, picking up his knife and fork and preparing to dig in. “I tried, at least.”
The meat was tender and juicy, raw enough to be succulent, well done enough that it did not sicken. The cut danced in the mouth, gently inviting one to have more.
By the time the meal was done, everyone had reached the conclusion that James was a truly remarkable cook.
He thanked the others for their lavish compliments, then suggested they move their chairs back to the fire again, which they did, taking the opportunity to have a relaxed discussion about their plans.
“So, Captain,” Stephanie said. “You’re the only one who can read the map. Where do you suggest we go?”
“Let me see it,” he replied.
She pulled it out of her pocket, and Vanilla examined it in firelight that glowed the exact same shade as his hair.
Abutting the dotted line on either side were clusters of clouds, on top of which were painted trees, rocks, waterfalls.
“Well,” Vanilla said, pointing to the drawings. “These mean something, along the sides here.”
The others all looked mystified, so he continued, “The map is telling us to go somewhere. I don’t know where, but it’s along the route of the line. Everything else is just sky.”
“So…” he mused. “I say we head for what’s closest.”
He plunked his finger down on nearest part of the map.
“It’s a little bit northwest of here, but I’m not sure how big the distance is. It could be one mile or a thousand. There’s no scale here. It’s just endless.”
He looked down toward the bottom of the map, where a little roving X he hadn’t noticed before drifted about the page, with the miniscule words “You are here” following along beside it.
“We should go up and readjust course,” James said. “I’ll help you.”
“Thanks,” Vanilla replied.
The two boys got up and headed for the stairs, while Stephanie and Michael sat behind, warming their hands. Stephanie looked content, but there was a trace of anxiety on Michael’s face he was trying to hide. He leaned forward as if to talk to her as the other boys left the room, but the door closed behind them and Vanilla didn’t hear what he said.
Both he and James were shocked by how cold it was above decks.
James rubbed his hands over the goosebumps on his arms. His breath came out like smoke when he turned to Vanilla and asked, “Where are we now?”
“Headed south,” Vanilla smiled. “In the exact opposite direction from where we need to be going.”
James laughed and the two of them turned the wheel together, bringing the ship around.
“We’re on course now,” James said, patting Vanilla on the back. They walked down the stairs to the main deck, and James turned to continue down to the dining room.
“Are you coming?” he asked, for Vanilla had paused on the landing.
“No,” Vanilla replied. “I’ll be in in a minute. I just want to think.”
“Okay,” James said. He retreated through the doorway into the warm light of the cabin below.
Vanilla leaned on the railing and stared out into a black velvet sky pierced by the beams of a thousand heaven-bound gems.
What struck him most about the night scene was the silence, unnatural, ethereal, that fell across the whole of the shimmering sky and the encompassed the vast, motionless ocean beneath him, an ocean black but for the reflection of the hundreds of suns above it.
It was a silence that wasn’t silence, a hush; as if the stars themselves had gasped in astonishment at their own beauty. The icy air stung his nose and made it harder to fight the tears.
A pair of thin arms appeared on the railing next to his own. He didn’t have to look up to see whom they belonged to; a strand of golden hair rested atop one of the hands. The other person inhaled sharply, as if meaning to say something, then decided against it. A swish of blonde told Vanilla that the figure’s head had twisted away from him.
Then, slowly, the narrow neck turned left again, pointing its owner’s face out toward the interminable black where the ocean ended and the sky began.
Vanilla’s breath came out in billowy huffs, which he couldn’t disguise because the cold turned them into spouts of steam.
When he finally looked over, Michael’s blue eyes were squinted together, tears pouring down his fair face.
“I’m sorry,” he said without looking at Vanilla. “But it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And I don’t know why it makes me so sad.”
He stopped to wipe his eyes.
“Maybe it’s because I realize for the first time that there’s more,” he continued. “And it’s awful that people never…”
“I’ve seen something much more beautiful,” Vanilla said.
He almost gasped aloud the moment the words left his mouth. He’d not meant to say them, not meant to stare at the other boy like that when he did, but something just brought them out. It was the night, and the air, and the way the sky twinkled at you.
He looked down and blushed furiously.
“I—I’ll see you in the morning,” he said.
“Yeah,” Vanilla breathed.
Michael walked to the staircase and turned, his face a portrait of pain and confusion. His instinctive happiness had bubbled over these feelings all his life, but neither emotion had been ripped to the surface with such visceral bluntness before. He opened his mouth, closed it, and went inside.
Vanilla stared out at the stars for half an hour.
He turned from that awesome sight, cast a glance at the beds lined up on the poop deck, and descended two flights of stairs to the sleeping quarters. There, he fell into a green four-poster and was asleep within minutes.