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.


In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from land, and humans, there is enormous floating reminder of the indelible mark we leave from afar. Called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Plastic Vortex and the world’s largest landfill, the North Pacific Gyre is a combination of currents and carelessness that makes up what some suggest is a wasteland filled with plastic. Rife with fantastic sounding aquatic traps such as “ghost nets,” it is suggested that its collection is of such a scale that, as of yet, no one has been able to calculate its true size.

In a song by local Park Slope musicians Whale Belly, there is an interesting lyric  “I know what I hate, I just don’t know why.”

The upcoming show Whale Belly is slated to perform in, Post Plastic Project at Littlefield in Brooklyn, plans to remedy just such ignorance through a feast of artists, musicians and comedians curated to raise money, and awareness for the environmental organization, Project Kaisei.

Discovered by chance in 1997 by oceanographer Charles Moore, the North Pacific Gyre is Project Kaisei’s main focus. Kaisei itself began in late 2008 when co-founders, Doug Woodring, George Orbelian, and Mary T. Crowley, found a need to bring attention and research to the growing problem of plastic pollution. In 2009 Kaisei launched its brigantine vessel (the namesake of Kaisei, meaning “Ocean Planet”) and an oceanography vessel called “New Horizon,” donated from partnering organization Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The mission was to collect and calculate data on the amount, type, and breakdown rates of plastic litter that is trapped in the middle of the ocean.

Some findings maintain that certain types of plastic are breaking down at rates much faster than imagined. Most recently the rate was a year or less for some materials to completely disintegrate and penetrate waters and wildlife, raising concerns about toxin levels in fish and other saltwater animals. Utilizing a variety of technological outlets to get their message across, Team Kaisei reports directly from the boat with updates on their findings, and even has a voyage tracker via Google Earth that allows you pinpoint the location, and view interactive message from crew members.

When I asked Lindsay Bourget, one of the curators of the Post Plastic Project, “Why Kaisei?” she answered directly, “I started this project because I wanted to find someone to donate to that made the most sense and they [Project Kaisei] made the most sense to me, because their number one goal is to capture the plastic vortex and that’s exactly what I was most concerned about, so it seemed like a natural fit.” Some debate remains about the severity and size of the  litter in the North Pacific Gyre, along with concerns about disturbing wildlife in the effort to collect, as well as the idea that full collection of all the plastic is a Sisyphean task. Nevertheless when I asked Lindsay about her concern for the validity of such projects in the face these doubts as well as major global disasters (particularly oil spills) she acknowledged “it can be really discouraging, but then you think there’s only one way to really start making a change.”

Co-curator Laina Karavani adds, “Sometimes artists and musicians are the only one’s that people really listen to and can help illicit change, and that’s what this is all about, moving towards that change.”

Post Plastic Project will demonstrate by example, using soy ink, and semi-recycled paper in their printing materials through Long Island City based, ColorCoded, and party materials (cups, plates, etc) provided by SustyParty, a New York based company that provides a line of eco-friendly, biodegradable party products made from corn oil, tapioca starch and other recycled materials, along with a bin to collect and ensure compost.

The artists and musicians are pooled from both Lindsay and Laina’s art and design background. Lindsay currently works in packing and architectural design, and went to Colorado Institute of Art, while Laina is photographer originally from New Jersey. Laina moved to San Francisco to attend the Art Academy of San Francisco, and found herself in an environment of high sustainability expectations. Drawing from this experience and from a childhood where recycling was the norm, Laina and Lindsay were eventually introduced by a professor who thought they might be a good match (their birthdays are only two days apart.) As the project grew larger both realized that this kind of grassroots organization for a less dire cause might be exactly what people were looking for.

The show is a powerhouse in itself with fifteen artists, four bands, and two MC’s. Mostly local fare, the artists were friends of or approached directly by Lindsay and Laina, and much to their surprise, nearly all said yes. With the increase of sustainable forms of living becoming the norm in Brooklyn it was easy to see that Lindsay and Laina’s project provided the perfect outlet for supporters looking for a more manageable idea of altruism.

The line up for music is strong and ranges from the pipes of a classically trained opera singer (singing in a rock band of course) Little Grey Girlfriend, the upbeat and introspective words and sound of Whale Belly (Park Slope), The Robin Electric with nostalgic twinges of their Cleveland roots, and string band turned electric from Chicago, Panoramic and True.

Artists include talent like artist and curator Ben Peterson, Christine Nguyen, illustrator Mariana Silva, award-winning motion graphics designer Mauricio Leon, illustrator Travis Simon, Daria Tessler and many more.

There will be prints for sale, a raffle, giveaways and comedic relief with the help of couple MC’s Brooke Van Poppelen and Luca Molandes.

The show takes place this Sunday June 5th at Littlefield in Brooklyn
Doors open at 6, with a free art reception and $10 cover for the music.
All proceeds will benefit the effort of Project Kaisei.