issue 5

I Am Tasting the Stars, by Jennifer R. Donohue

The maps aren’t always right anymore. After the ocean took little nibbles out of the coastlines and then big gobbling bites, mapmakers were still trying, storms or no storms. But then there were bombs too, and any new maps stayed in the hands of their makers. Supposedly there’s still internet for some people, but not out here on the waves. The radios still work; there’s a lot of radio to listen to. An antenna and some power and anybody can have a radio station, and there’s a lot of power to be gotten from the water. Off the water, wind and solar. Not a whole lot of anybody telling you that isn’t the way we do things, not anymore. They had to bomb the shit out of the world first to get all that cleared up, but where things work nowadays, it’s well and cleanly. And where things don’t, well, there’s a lot of ammunition left still from the faraway gone world, and a lot of it still works just right.

I’m old enough to remember the old world, just a little. Cars and buses and so many people all in one place. Living on land. Electric lights that replaced the stars. Satellites that were replacing the stars, day by day; bunch of those are out of the sky by now, it seems, and we were even near a splashdown once. The geigers went nuts when we got too close though, just brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt from nothing right to red, and we turned the boats away. You only make that mistake once, if at all. You only hear about that mistake close-hand once, somebody cooking from inside out, skin and hair sloughing off, dying screaming in three days like a biblical curse but no, it’s just the demons hewn out of the ground in the old world.

Some of my crew is old enough. Some of them had been older than me for awhile, and rest their souls, they’d been sent down to the locker when their times came, just like I will be when my time comes, and everybody else on the group of vessels I lead. If it was the old old times, wooden boat days, we’d just have one big boat to be all aboard and I’d be their captain but instead we just stick together in our own little constellation on the waves and there’s safety, and danger, in numbers. Bigger fleets might come our way, hoping to reap everything, and smaller fleets steer away from us, hoping not to be reaped. 

We do okay. We’re good at finding what we need, having enough. It’s why they still humor me, and my list; I’ve brought them years of plenty, no matter how ridiculous the ask.

I wrote it in waterproof pencil on waterproof paper in those first days After, sometimes traced over it so it wouldn’t fade too bad, as time went by. There’s always a Before, and an After. Most of the stuff is checked off now, some good sense stuff like a hand crank radio and sunscreen, always sunscreen, some little kid stuff like a Civil War cavalry saber and the ruby slippers. It’s funny to read those things, though, recognize the panicked responsibility I thought that I, a literate child, had to the gone-away world. Cultural responsibility. What would the new world be like if it didn’t remember Oz? What would the new world be like if it forgot that owning people and fighting your brothers was dumb? 

Of course the new world was never going to be like the old one, except in that most basic way. Humans tend to band together and try to be good, but there’s always the bad actors, the people who will always fight, always take, always hurt. We only fight to defend ourselves. We share, we don’t take. 

There’s one item left on the list that I’m not sure I’ll ever get, and that’s the thing we’ve been chasing for years now, my white whale. I want a good bottle of champagne. I don’t mean that I’ve had low-quality champagne and I’ve tried to rectify that; no, I’ve never had champagne that wasn’t spoiled by the temperature changes when the power went out in all the liquor stores in the world. I’ve never had champagne that wasn’t just rancid, angry vinegar, though I guess that’s a mood if ever there was one. Can’t even make champagne anymore. That region of France is too hot now for the grapes to do anything but burst or mold and sicken on the vine. Lots of places are too hot now for grapes to do that, without indoor environmental controls. And anybody still growing grapes is probably doing it for food, not wine. I don’t know, I could be wrong. I was nine and had never drunk champagne.

But I’ve noticed my crew’s eyerolls, their grumbles, their reticence, when we follow a newly-flowed river as far upstream as it’ll take us, get on the bicycles and pedal to a wine cave, a strip mall, a vineyard, hoping that one of them had the just-right qualities to keep a bottle, one single bottle, good enough that I can cross it off my list and consider my life complete. Not that I’m that old yet, but I’m old enough. I’m not their Wendy anymore, and my lost boys have grown up after all. They don’t want to know about the old world, not much. It’s as real to them as Greek mythology or the Bible was to me, when there were still movies and tv you could watch. It isn’t something that’s real, something that’s happening. It’s just a nice story.

And I don’t know when it’ll come, not really, but I’m ready when they come to me one afternoon. The water is calm, land so far away it isn’t even a purple smudge on the horizon. I’ve got my feet up on the ship’s rail, the confederate cavalry saber leaned up next to me. Hat and sunglasses on. A group of them come, a delegation. 

“Captain, we aren’t going to do your list anymore,” the first one to find his tone says. Paul, in fact. I keep any of my literary thoughts to myself, when faced with this mutiny. It isn’t unreasonable, except that I haven’t pursued the list to the exception of other things. We have always had the means to survive, sometimes more comfortably than others. But you don’t get as many gray hairs as I have if you haven’t been canny along the way. Our voyage has been more than my list, but it’s my list that’s broken us up.

“Aren’t we?” I say mildly. I’ve had in my mind what I’d do when this day came, if it came, but I am interested in what they’ve planned out amongst themselves. They’ll need a strong leader, if they’re ousting me. They need somebody who can make the decisions I’ve made, for the good of all. But they need somebody sensible too. We’ll see how utterly they’re rejecting me.

“No, we’re not,” Paul says. “We use too much fuel, and we’re tired of it besides. We’ve failed too many times.” Which will make success all the sweeter, I think, but I wait. A mutiny from my most recent boys and girls is going to be like an afternoon fishing: requires lots of patience, probably won’t have any bloodshed. “We think if we’re going to do something like that, it should be to find a permanent position on land. Or at least long-time food stores that we can bring back to the boats.”

“Those are good ideas,” I say, which surprises him. It kind of surprises me, that they’d want a permanent place on land. But they’ve never had that so of course they’d want it. I guess I’ve taken the wind out of his sails, though; he isn’t sure how to proceed. Since I’ve agreed, his impulse is to ask me where I think a good permanent place would be. He can’t do this, since he’s in the middle of a mutiny.

He struggles visibly for a moment and then finally says, “So you have to go.” 

“I have to go,” I repeat. We’re on my ship, the one my parents took us away from land in, that I’ve maintained over the years. I’ve still got my feet up, the cavalry saber is still by my side. I’d been thinking about reweaving the fabric of this deck chair, but not anymore, I guess. I free him from my gaze, look around. “Is that what everybody thinks? That I need to leave?”

They shuffle their feet and look away and mutter, but most of them are nodding. Not all, there’s a couple who are too ashamed to dissent. We’ll see what they do. “Yeah, we all think that,” Paul says, emboldened again.

“Guess you better get off my ship then,” I say. I still haven’t raised my voice, and have managed not to laugh, or cry, at this change in the wind. 

“Get off your…” He looks around, but every last one of them knows the story of my vessel. If they think I’m going to just get in a rubber raft and let them cast me off well…none of them should be thinking that, is what I’m saying. But this isn’t how any of it is supposed to go, when a crew mutinies. Fleets don’t mutiny much; it’s another thing that works out to such a more simple and satisfying end on a single larger ship.

I drop my boots to the deck, then stand up. I’m not physically taller than Paul but my fable’s bigger than his, and he steps back without thinking, before he can really decide whether he wants to or not. “We all make our choices,” I say. “You think I should shove off I will, and I won’t even come back to bother you. You’ve worked for what’s yours, I’ve worked for what’s mine. I wish you well.”

Paul swallows hard; he’s feeling like he’s being made a fool of, and heaven help us if somebody laughs and sets him off. I don’t want to have to hurt anybody. My days doing that are done, god willing. There’s some uneasy shuffling, and crew start making their way off my deck to the other boats. Things dip and sway a little with each of their passing, like a wave goodbye, and I stand proud and tall and wait until it’s just me and Paul and one of the girls, Roz.

“I would’ve fought you,” he says, for his own benefit, or maybe he’s showing off for Roz, I don’t know yet whether she’s throwing in with me. A small part of me that I’m not listening to right now thought that more of my crew would stay with me. 

“I know,” I say. The motors on boats around us are starting. “Take care of them.”

“You know I will,” he says and I just nod because probably it’s best if I just let him go, don’t try to mother or aunt him or anything one last time. It’d just be insulting. 

And he goes, and Roz stays. She look at me with big ‘what are we doing?’ eyes, but she stays. One of the smaller boats pulls up alongside and another girl throws a couple of bags over, comes over herself. They must have packed their bags to best handle whatever power struggle happened. I wonder how long they’ve been talking about this, planning, all without my knowing. Keeping secrets aboard ship is difficult, but necessary. People need secrets to be happy, I think, no matter how tiny and safe the secret. The other girl, Jackie, looks at me with far less alarm.

“Hey Captain,” she says.

“Hey yourself,” I say. “Any more coming?”

She winces a little. “I dunno. Probably not.”

I nod. “Okay then.” I think about just sitting down, as I was, but my remaining crew need reassurance. I know what I’m doing, but they’re unsettled. What just happened was a big deal to them; this isn’t my first mutiny. Certainly the least bloody. I don’t always have the stomach for it anymore, though. Not after having to cut down my second in command.

I don’t sleep with any of my crew anymore, either.

“You have a plan, right Captain?” Jackie asks, playfully nudging Roz with her shoulder. Roz seems to realize that she’s been frozen to the deck and tries for a smile.

“I do have a plan. We’re headed north, and I got the ship’s sonar working.” They kind of look at me. “It’s a thing so I can see the bottom.”

“The ocean has a bottom?” Jackie asks, then laughs. “You know what I mean. A bottom that we can get to, to get stuff.”

“In places, we’d be able to reach the bottom, yeah. Like if there’s a ship wrecked on shoals.” I’ve thought about this a lot. How once my parents took me to a shipwreck museum, and some of the stuff there looked practically like new. Something about the water temperature, the way the boat shielded stuff, something. But I’m starting to feel like this might be my best bet; champagne that was on a boat that somebody sank because they weren’t used to having to boat for real instead of just for fun. It’s worth a shot. I don’t know if it’s worth everything, if it’s worth my crew that just left me, but I’ve come so far at this point, I couldn’t do any different.

And so we head north. I think that maybe more rich people didn’t know what they were doing and sunk their boats north. It’s just what my gut is telling me, and times I’ve gone against my gut have been some of the worst times.

My diminished crew takes turns at the wheel, but at night, I send them both to bunks. I can sometimes hear them whispering together, maybe furtively arguing, just outside my range of hearing. A few weeks have passed, and I think they regret their decision already, going from a raucous full family to a pair of daughters or cousins or maybe they’re a couple, with me, the moody mother. Mysteriously driven, who they feel loyalty to, but don’t understand, and don’t know if they were mistaken. What gain for them, by maintaining loyalty? They’ll leave me soon, I think. As soon as we meet another fleet, or hit upon a port to refuel. We fish together, and eat together, and I hope they’ll have the courage in their hearts to tell me, and not just slink away when my back is turned. I probably should not have let them come at all. What did I hope to gain? What did they? I have to trust them to not come to me with knives, when I sleep. 

But I can’t sleep, I’ve never had the knack for it, even when I was very small and we still had things like houses and beds and night lights. I always felt like the moon, personally, was my friend. Especially if my parents had me out at night, and we drove with the moon in attendance, just outside the window. Now the moon seems closer, grows fuller and fuller, all of the attendant stars so bright, also so close, like trailing robes or hair. 

The sonar pings quietly in my instruments. I’m only sort of sure of how it’s supposed to work, and watch intently when it shows me pixelated schools of fish, a mass that I think must be a reef until it dives suddenly. A whale then, confirmed some time later when it breaches and blows, slaps its tail on the surface. I like whales, the way I used to like elephants when I went to the zoo, for how big they are and how patient they seem, for how they care for their babies and each other. People just want you to think that’s how they always act; with animals, you know it’s real. I had a ship’s cat once, years ago, but got too sad when she died of an advanced old age to ever again have another.

I steer us closer to shore to experiment with spotting shipwrecks. Old or new, it won’t matter if they’re too deep to reach, miles or meters all piling up beyond our abilities. Some of the crew that left me could hold their breaths ever so long, dive so deep and so long that I paced the decks and worried they were gone this time, truly, taken by the cold or the current, until they surfaced with fish or oysters or whatever other treasure took their fancy in the below-the-surface world. I can swim, of course I can swim, but that kind of diving I’ve never been good about. Especially now, when, in spite of myself, I’m older and starting to find that my limits have changed. The world has narrowed, a bit, where before it was me and the salt and the spray and the sun on my hair. My crew, my crews, my fleet. 

I can’t sleep, and I’m at the ship’s wheel when I get pings that look like a ship, and stay looking like a ship. It will be light soon, and though the sky is clear now, the lightening horizon is the same deep red as the gills of a fresh-cleaned fish. Red at night, sailor’s delight, red in the morning, sailor take warning. That rhyme stuck for a reason and is rarely wrong. There’s a storm coming, and it’s hard to say from where or which direction we should even try to flee, if we were going to try. Though sometimes there’s old oil rigs full of people that fish and trade and run radio stations, I would’ve had to be tuned in for any kind of weather report. I won’t say I’ve never tuned in to have a radio voice keep me company deep into the velvet night, but now, when I’m so bereft of the company I’ve normally kept, I haven’t been.

By the time Jackie and Roz come up to the deck, scruffing their hands through their hair to settle it, rubbing sleep from their eyes, the entire sky is slate gray, streaked with white, like a pile of gull’s feathers. The wind has kicked up and if we had a sail it would be snapping like a whip and if we were anchored the anchor would be dragging its chain like a dog pulling its leash. Land is a shadow on the horizon, but land is not always shelter from a storm; it’s gotta be the right kind of land. It’s just so hard to tell, and so many times over the years, I’ve gone with my gut. My gut says to stay here, where there’s a sunken ship. My gut says to flee, because a storm like this sunk that ship on the bottom I’m so keen on. I have no way to know, pulled one way, pushed another, that my mind has reached a sort of horse latitude and I watch the foam on the waves and wait.

“What do we do?” Jackie asks, when it seems as though I am doing nothing.

“We wait,” I say. “The chop is something we can handle, and there’s nothing here for us to run aground on. There’s a boat down there, I’m not sure how deep. We’ll wait, we’ll circle, and the storm will blow over.”

“Will it?” Roz asks. She hates to question me, I know, and I hate to not have a real answer for them. The only two who stayed with me. It could’ve been one. It could’ve been none. I do wonder how the rest of my erstwhile fleet is faring; if they are in this storm or if they are faraway gone. It isn’t the season, quite, for the big ones, but storms follow their own rules. No wonder they used to name them, in the old world; they’re like transient gods. So big and so powerful, so careless and willful. Do we ever name things that don’t destroy? Or that we don’t want to control, which is just another type of destruction. 

“I think it will,” I say. Am I so driven that I think this boat we’ve found is the only one left in the world to let me finish my list? Or is it sensible, to wait the storm out rather than waste fuel trying to fight it, trying to flee it? We will need more fuel soon, but it won’t become dire for a while. Plenty of time to solve other problems first, the storm, the wreck, the dive. Whether there is champagne there, or whether it’s just an old fishing vessel, just a vessel overloaded by those fleeing the storm-wracked shore without the means or know-how to survive. My parents’ boat, this boat, could have had that fate, but instead here I stand. 

“Well I’ll batten those hatches, then,” Jackie says, which is what we have always said, when a storm is coming and there’s nothing for it but to wait. We don’t light the cookstove for coffee or anything, just chew some hardtack and try not to stare at the looming horizon, while staring at the looming horizon. The waves start to build, and I take the helm to keep us pointed into them. We should’ve left, I know this as the waves break over the deck, swirl around our ankles, plaster our hair to our necks and faces. We could only have stayed, I think, as the St. Elmo’s fire dances green and blue and weird along the ship’s rails and above our heads and lightning harpoons down into the black and white waves. The thunder does nothing to convince me against my earlier thoughts of transient gods, so all-encompassing and bone-shaking it is. We are all necessarily strong of stomach, but the tossing we receive certainly tests our mettle again and again, and when the calm comes, I don’t trust it, looking to see if we’re within the walls of an eye, or if the storm is well and truly past.

I’m greeted with a pale blue sky, white-cloud streaked, a tired out but relaxed sky. The storm has passed. I catch the look on Jackie’s face, stormy like she blames me for the weather, which she shouldn’t, but I can’t blame her for my bad decision. That wasn’t the worst I’ve been through, but now isn’t the time to tell them that; those kinds of stories are for when the sharp edges are worn off and they can laugh about it. Roz just looks like she’s about to cry, and I look for the words to comfort her. 

“We’re done,” Jackie says. Even though I’ve expected it, for a stupid minute, I think she’s talking about the storm. Roz goes pale, though, and looks like she might throw up, despite the calmer waters. “We tried, Captain, really, but you’re just drifting. You don’t know what you’re doing.” 

I’ve finally been found out, I think wryly. I feel like I’ve been a teenager all this time, pretending. Fighting. Being the loudest, the firm one. The one with the list, the plan. Now they know. “There’s a ship down there that might be the one, and after that, I’ll take you to port. Or we can radio around, see if the others are nearby, and you can rejoin them.”

“They won’t take us back,” Roz says in a tiny torn voice. “We’ll have to start over somewhere else.”

Then why did you come at all, I want to say, I do not say. It won’t fix anything. There is no fix. “Then I’ll take you to port. After we look at this ship.”

“There’s no we anymore,” Jackie says.

“Well then you know where the rafts are,” I say, and Roz starts to cry.

“We didn’t want—” she gets out before she chokes up. 

“I know,” I say, because it’s complicated as hell but I think I have the gist of it. I didn’t either. “That’s the choice. Let me dive and I’ll take you to port, or take a raft and bon voyage.” They could always agree to let me dive and then take the boat. They won’t do that. I look at Jackie’s flinty eyes; they might do that. Roz worms her fingers into one of Jackie’s fists. 

“Can we wait?” she asks plaintively.

Jackie starts to speak, closes her mouth, looks at Roz, sighs. 

“We’ll wait,” she says, almost a growl. She doesn’t want to have to raft in from here; I don’t blame her. That’s the way the storm went. Plus having to explain themselves at port, figure out what to do with the raft, all of it. Better to wait. Or better to take my boat. God damn it.

“Thanks,” I say, kicking off my boots. I look at the sonar again. The ship is still there. It isn’t a whale, it isn’t a reef, it’s bigger than a lifeboat, smaller than a multi decked affair. I drop my shirt to the deck, and my pants. I imagine I can taste the champagne, or the bubbles anyway, like how I remember soda, that hard fizz filling the back of your throat. Not sweet, the champagne, but cold. Rewarding. The last thing I want from the gone away world.

I tap the list, protected by a plexi panel, with my fingertips. The original Winnie-the-Pooh, lifeguard whistle, Yankees hat. Tampons, all the tampons we can find. Mom told me to put that on the list, I remember. There’s nothing for it; they’ll leave me or they won’t. I’ll find the champagne here, or I won’t. 

“You want to know one reason I kept that saber?” I ask the girls, who watch me, poised to dive. Jackie rolls her eyes, but Roz sniffles a little, nods. “That’s one way you can open a bottle of champagne. I don’t know why, maybe it was a military victory thing. But I practiced, on the bad bottles. I’ll show you on a good bottle.” Roz smiles a little, and Jackie sighs, her jaw softening a little.

“That’s cool,” she says.

I dive. The water is cold, folds around all my limbs like wrapping me in silk, and my eyes burn in my eagerness to dive without goggles. The wavery watery world is clear enough, though, the boat pretty much in one big piece, though I can see the rocks, see where they cut a jaggedy hole in the hull. 

I swim down, and down, and down, my hair pressed seal-slick against my skull, the world a gritted-tooth hush around me, and my ears pop as I get close enough to touch the boat, grasp the wood, muscle myself down closer. There, the ship’s wheel, there the life preservers still tied down with their plastic ropes, there a built-in drinks fridge. I can imagine a family like mine, in flip flops and sunshine on the deck, fishing or birdwatching or hoping for dolphins. 

My heart hammers heavy in my ears as I go hand over hand, my feet trying to pull me back to the surface, but not yet, not yet. I let some of the air out of my lungs in a stream of bubbles and I pull open the fridge and it’s full of metal-topped glass bottles and bright tin cans and I can’t tell what color anything is and there’s some way bigger bottles and I grab one and draw myself into a crouch against the boat, kick off, arrow to the surface.

I’ve done this before. This isn’t even the longest I’ve taken. But that first breath when I break the surface is always sweet relief. My boat, still there, is sweet relief. Roz waves back at me as I raise the blue glass bottle in victory, the gold foil wrapping the cork and neck glinting in the sunlight. I’m back on deck in a matter of moments, water pattering around my feet, reaching for my saber even as I’m tossing my salt-wet hair back out of my eyes, even as I’m pointing for Jackie to get out the glasses, all of us laughing and smiling together, finally. It’s a photo op moment in a world that no longer takes pictures but I strike a pose with bottle and blade, thinking for a moment no, I need to save this bottle, no, it’s been so long.

But the whole point of champagne is to drink it in celebration, and as Roz claps but Jackie just kind of forces a smile, I cock the bottle in my hand, blade poised, and point the cork out over the glittering water. With a grand sweep of my arm, I cross the last thing off of my list.

Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and her doberman. Her work appears in Escape Pod, Apex, Fusion Fragment, and elsewhere. Her novella series, Run With the Hunted, is available on most digital platforms. She tweets @AuthorizedMusin.

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