Excerpts from “The Vessel.”

by Rallou Lubitz

The archaeologist rows to shore. At her feet lies a clay tablet. The wreck where it was found exists only as an indentation in the sand, way below the waves. Even now, as they row back, it grows less.

She lights the lamp at her desk and makes her first sketch of the tablet. It seems to have writing on both sides. The script shows itself only as a pattern of hollows. It exists in the same way the wreck does.

She begins to translate.

We arrive at the harbour with a stone at its centre.

All night she has worked for a single line. Now almost dawn, even the sea has become silent.

They row out past the mouth of the anchorage, following a warm current, past the sea caves. There are two fishermen, one turns the pump providing her with air, the other places a hook in the water until his turn comes. It is hard to see the shapes beneath the boat as naturally occurring. Each mass of seaweed waving slowly in contrast to the waves above, each mound of sand in the shape of a listing hull is a language. It speaks of others.

After dinner in her room, she attempts another translation.

We arrive at the shore of stones, cypress the shapes of the wind.

How could it be so different, this translation from the previous one? She thought the script was made of phonetic symbols. Turning it over it seems instead she has attempted to translate endless tides engraving each pull of the moon; or the traces of a hermit crab as it has wandered back and forth. She closes her notebook and looks out at the square. Until her eyes adjust to the dark it is as if this place does not exist. Then, slowly, a tree separates itself from a wall. Clouds hovering low in the square become each a mass of leaves. Though there is a moment before each shape becomes more than its outline, when they appear as if they could be read.

She waits as dawn picks out the shape of each fishing boat at the wharf. When they cast off the light is barely on the water. The older fisherman smokes as he rows. The other, who is a similar age to the archaeologist, has gone into the city to buy supplies to repair the nets. Each summer he does this. Each winter they go further out until the shore is not even a dark line on the horizon. His departure to the city means already it is half way to autumn. When winter comes she will have no more money and must leave the village. The older fisherman has brought a coin for her to examine. This is how her evenings used to be spent before she found the tablet. Looking at the finds of the local people, at a statuette with the horns and muzzle of a bull. Turning over a bronze cup that leaves a green imprint where she balanced it on her palm.

Drawing a line through her previous translation, she begins again.

We arrive at the harbour with its baskets of sponges.

… possessing it they never thirst. Neither over long sea journeys where salt glitters on the waves and the air sticks; or in the marshes. Another animal builds its nest atop veins of gold, bronze and iron. Tear down this nest and it will lead you to other riches when it seeks a new site. We destroyed many nests. Dug beneath stones in the desert. Our hands brought forth only water full of creatures with white eyes that writhed on the surface. We followed the birds and lizards circling, rushing back, forwards, calling to their mate. They led us back only to broken eggs, half formed young gaping, hairless. We drank the last of our fresh water. Unable to dig new names for ourselves from gold, bronze, we cannot return. Our old names would fasten to us. We must set out…

Departing, thick stalks of seaweed curl round the helm.

She closes her notebook.

They row out, past a mass of seaweed circled by grey sea birds. Past the rocks that rise in a line from the water. Past caves where the sea rushes in to echo deep within the cliffs. The older fisherman rolls himself a cigarette at the rudder. They let down the nets. When they return it is already dark.

Lighting the lamp she begins.

We arrive at the ruined temple, a few stones frame the sea.

… an endless mass of waves. At dawn they resemble land. Beneath its light we saw red cliffs. Faint yellow harbours unravelling. Before the storm a rolling darkness surged up. We turned towards what must be mountains, hills thick with trees immense above the shore. Breaking, it becomes stinging salt. Again we are on the open sea. Dragging our ships up on to the sand we saw what had marked this shore like a knot in a rope, was ash. Another village burnt. Its people, carvers of ivory, fled. Or we find the white buildings of the port cannot be told from other ports. It seemed all was made of salt water, lost in its constant rise and fall. Years passed. I expected to find only a mound for my village of white houses. Apricots soured on the branches, for the bee filled orchards. Instead how solid my village walls. All intact inside. The stones passed the sun’s heat into my fingers; their breath, all who remain alive.

Departing, the long sea grass on the shore, closes over the stones as a wave.

It appears two phrases remain constant: ‘we arrive at…’ and ‘departing…’, though they do not seem to match the place described within.

Again she begins.

We arrive at the tower of stone in the desert, hollow for hunters to sleep inside.

… drifting we hear a voice lament: to be undone, made nothing. Rows of the dead pulled up on the shore. The inhabitants gather wood. Smoke shrouds the water. We crossed the sea a year ago to trade combs, sweets and garum. Driven back by contrary winds we passed by. This city moves as the tide does. A mirror of the currents. The remaining boats are upside down. Appearing as mound after mound of earth among the waves…

Departing, the clouds low in the sky, shifting from boar to lynx, are the only ones that leave a trail.

She closes her notebook. Each attempt has a sense of arriving at a new destination. As if she has journeyed to five islands along the coast, each an entire day’s rowing from the other. Beginning each translation she feels she sights land suddenly on the edge of a wave; or the imperceptible thickening of clouds into city walls. Closing her notebook there exists the pull of a harbour receding. These places appear to return. They echo in each ridge of lights picking out the spine of an island. Or she hears them described by one of the shepherds forcing his goats through the narrow streets either side of the square. In the way a life remains not only in traces of bone and hair, but in its resemblance to other lives.

The younger fisherman still has not returned from the city. He should have gone by sea but instead decided to walk. This way he will not return for another two or three days. The boat is silent without him. Listening to the waves it seems if she pressed the tablet against her ear she would hear the sea wearing the vessel. If she placed her head against the vessel she would hear the words within the tablet. She may not be able to tell one murmur apart from the other.

The next evening she begins again.

We arrive at the stone lions. Pass through.

… I came to sell cloth. Much time has passed since first setting out. Though the harbour appears to me, little by little; built of thyme exhaling beneath the sun, or from light reflected off the waves at the prow. It builds itself out of sand as I approach the city and pass through the sting of it, to find it fade behind me. I look for it reflected in the water by the roadside. On the city walls the laws are written, the script is familiar but not the sounds. It seems these glimpses are fragments of my return, which being scattered through different lands has ceased to be. I should have been gathering and keeping together all these pieces, to sail into its harbour. Or perhaps its outlines have become blurred with those where they were glimpsed; and returning I will not be able to know my own…

Departing, there are mountains behind the city, pass through.

She makes a note that compound words are born trying to convey something that has never been described before. How few names enclose their subject, rather they sit as a mask laid on a rough sea.

She begins.

We arrive at the waters of gull coloured clouds.

… the axe is lifted, the branches cut. On the shore, towers of kindling lengthen their shadows. Messages of red cloth are tied to the mane and tail of a mare, in the language of the gods. She is let loose on the first day of harvest. Her ears pricked for their footsteps. Fires are lit. Fragrant smoke billows up to draw the skies close. The ash spread across an ox skin, its pattern read. On this lake I wait. On the first day of harvest a city beaten from gold rises to its surface. Rippling with the arduous rising. Some say it is the reflection of the fires on the water. Others, the shadows of gold cups and cattle thrown into the lake. It has the pattern of silence, an uninterrupted wholeness. All year I wait to learn it. To witness its unfurling within the lake’s sigh. The clarity of these patterns, like understanding the progress of a knot. I have seen it cover the lake…

Departing we race against our reflection before the wind.

She closes her notebook. The translation may be incorrect as some words remain untranslatable, becoming instead a reflective surface. In the way the bottom of a well returns the face of who ever gazes on it. All the lights in the village are out. The square is empty. It seems each evening is an echo of the previous one. She goes down to the sea, following the ripples left by the tide. Inscriptions echoing from shore to shore. If she were to copy these patterns into her notebook would she discover the words of the tablet there? In the house closest to the sea, the window of the younger fisherman is lit. He returned yesterday. On the ground outside a net is sewn by his shadow. There is so much to make ready before autumn.

Rallou Lubitz lives in Melbourne, Australia where she runs a small secondhand bookshop with her husband. She is currently at work on a novel.

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