With Rigging of Gold and a Sky Like Wine
rating: +33+x

This is how to make a boat.

You need to start with the hull — the skeleton. Everything starts with the skeleton: it is not the lifeblood, but the foundation, and that is what matters. So start there.

Make the hull out of oak and cedar. It's not the best of woods, cedar, but it will do. Make the ribs out of oak, line the spine with cedar. Cedar is soft, spongey: like waterlogged soap made half-firm again and given grain. But cedar is what you need, and cedar is what you have. Layer the softness on the inside, and in places where it would not do to be hard: the figurehead, the almost-gentle needle of the bowsprit, the delicacies of the gunwale, the seashell-smooth inlay of the Jacob's ladder. Cedar is too soft for your boat's outer skin – think of lips, soft and central to the face. Cedar is that. Put the softness deep inside, beneath the exoskeleton and between the gaps in the ribcage of hard oak. If you made a hull entirely of oak, it would be too brittle; if you made a hull entirely of cedar, it would be too soft. Put the two together, discipline and desire, and you have something to last you a lifetime. You're not a sailor, but even you know this. Now, the cedar — so tender. Don't bare your tender seaborne self except in small, shy flashes. To close friends, family. To the scouts on shore or in another boat, peering at you in detail, spyglasses glinting in the salted sunshine. Let them see the delicate bust, the figurehead, the filigreed carvings in little blocks where the sailors write their names, carving themselves indelibly into the soul of your ship, lest they be left as marks in her history.

Cedar and oak. The hull.

The sun sets. Rises. You work through the night, considering your options. Consider the shape of your ship quickly — you know what you want there: smooth and sleek like a fish, suited for cutting through waves large and small with speed and grace. Consider the wings — the sails — with equal swiftness: you want maneuverability, strength in technique, strength in quick tacking and careful tilting to best catch the breeze, not by having the most cloth thrown to a chance wind. But when it comes to weapons — guns — consider it roughly, as a block in your functioning. Stop in the shipyard, on the third day of building, half-started skeleton hanging above you. You are still wearing your too-fine woolen coat and perspiring heavily beneath it. Feel the weight of the gun-thought like a safe of cold iron in your mind. Stare into the burning horizon. And with the same careful precision as before, feel the weight, and know with slow certainty, with that cold steel thought hitting some deep cortex like an anchor – you won't have guns. You will not need them. Not now, not ever. Not here.

You cannot sell your ship — yourself — into service. You would be ruined. Guns are never worth the gain. No matter how they promise.

You exhale, a leaden weight off your chest — out of your chest, coughed up like a bullet in a lung. How strange, how that path of uncertainty had almost crippled you. Keep working. Let the hull stand proud and beautiful in the shipyard, bones sleek and gleaming, held aloft by rickety wooden fingers of cranes high above. Smell the dry timber, taste the heavy, gritty teak- and metal-oils on your tongue. Know that one small earthquake, one bad storm, one little spark of flame, and all you made will come crashing down and you won’t have enough to rebuild. Don't even consider suing the shipyard. The settlements won’t go well – the courts here are in league with the sea. You don’t belong here. Not yet. Let the dread lie heavy for a moment, then dissipate. Whatever comes, comes.

Work. Between gasping shifts lasting days and arguments with the shipbuilders lasting minutes and seconds: consider the hull. A colossal skeleton slowly wrought from air, brought into existence through deft brushstrokes of timber bound with iron, filled and fed to lean muscle with more timber, oil, metal. No earthquakes, no stray lightning-strikes, no bubbling-over gluepots occur. The weeks are prosperous. It takes a long time, but when the hull is done, it feels — beneath the sweat, the sore muscles, the mind overtaxed — like you are almost there. Your ship stands proud. You can walk the top now, stroke your hands along its rough, splintered hide. Ready to sail? it seems to ask. It's the first time you've heard its voice.

No, you tell it. You aren't ready. Not yet.

For now, though, a little congratulations are in order. Once you’ve made the hull, strained yourself pulling logs and nicking your fingers on the faulty buzzsaw and staining yourself warm and sticky with sap, once your hair is trapped in amber and your boat looks less like a beached skeleton and more like a carved conch in the vast hope of the shipyard, you may finally, finally stand back. See your ship for the whole. Step away to the docks, to where smooth plastic-and-metal speedboats lie in bobbing interlocked arrays, away from the oil, wood, and grime where your life has begun and where the land meets the sea. Wipe your brow. You're leaving smears on your face, you know – you are a proper ship-worker now: you've shed your coat, your balms, your scented oils. You've left those at home, and now your skin is cracked and tanned like leather, richly doused in the almost-pleasant reek of timber preservatives and wood oils.

Allow yourself to grin. Admire your work.

…Are you looking hard enough? Is your heart not working? Stand back. Look at your ship. Open your eyes. Your construction glows in the sunset. Do you feel that, the lightness in your chest? The surge of elation in the chambers of your heart? The taste of triumph on your tongue? You should be proud. Please.
It's all right, you know, to feel pride in your work, even when it's not yet done. Being proud won't scare it away, nor will it undo all your efforts thus far.
You’ve come so far.

It’s not enough, though, is it? Not yet.

It's evening again. Come back to the dock. Suppress a yawn, as you have done every hour for days now. Keep working. Don't let your ship into the water. Your ship creaks in its rope harness, a mighty wooden whale singing low and sweet to you, but it isn't ready. A premonition — come closer now, beneath the floodlights – see the gaps in the planks, the way the light shines through. You can’t sail this yet. Feel exhausted righteousness, now, knowing that you were right, tinged with disappointment. You aren't ready. The water would come through, and you would drown. The wood alone would float, but in pieces. You need to make the ship whole, not just in appearance alone, before you can set sail. Suppress another yawn. Another. Fail to suppress them.

The sun is setting. You’ll be back tomorrow.

Feel the exhaustion, the need for rest in your bones. How many days straight did you work on this? How many nights have you spent under the floodlights, chewing lemon peels and spent coffee grounds to keep yourself awake, keeping your mind barely sharp enough not to hit yourself with your own hammer? You deserve the rest. No shame in needing a break. Take the night off — your body, at the very least, needs time to heal. Set themselves up for tomorrow — even if your mind, simmering in the juices of insomnia, drunkenly pursues the thought of working through another night.

Take off toward a once-familiar row of distant streetlights. Wave goodbye to the dockworkers – they grin and wave back. You will return tomorrow. You have worked hard. They didn’t respect you before – you were just a city boy to them, when you first came here with all your dreams like a mountain behind you, dumped on their yard – but now they see your fire. These past few days, you have consumed yourself: used your body like a fire burns through fuel, driven your mind like a blaze burns through oxygen, and then some.

Your mind, your will, your spirit. You will build a ship. You will learn the stars. You will sail the sea.

But for now, rest. Turn left at the corner. Now right. Up the road.

Wearily bring yourself up the steps. Home is unfamiliar now — take a moment, orient yourself. Smell the dust, the mildew, the decay from a home left too long without light and warmth.

Tuck yourself in. Dream of salt and sea.


The next day. On your itinerary: patching the holes, sturdying the planks, tightening the joints, tarring the seams. Making your boat light and heavy all at once, ducklike. You want it not just to float, but to swim. But first things first — the dawn shines merry, the sea is calm, and you have rested at last. Movements and thoughts that were once hard come easy now, after the break — it's like you shed an old, constricting skin, grew bigger and stronger and more knowledgeable over those sleepless nights, had needed to cast off your mind so you could start anew. You stop asking for help with tasks you know you can do. You stop checking in with the woodworkers on the types you are using. You stop asking for your hand to be held through each process. You would have called what you are doing insanity, before last night. You also might have called your new actions careless, rash, hasty. But now — the dockworkers know, you see them nod affirmatively at your rigorous workmanship — you are sure: your thoughts are fuelled not by haste, but by surefooted knowledge. By expertise long since learned and honed to a fine edge, over these past few weeks. It's scary — hell, if you didn't feel the tremors of anxiety gnawing away from the depths of your subconscious, you'd be crazy — but you don't give your fears the light of day. It's change that has made you afraid now, and it's the only thing holding you back.

You know what you need to do. And so, with a rigorous effort that takes not seconds but agonizing hours, picking apart your behaviour and mental processes and painstakingly rerouting them bit by bit, thread by thread: you let go of fear.

And make way for clarity. You are a sunny day after weeks of rain.

And you know what to do next.

First step. There are holes in your ship, ones you hadn't noticed before. Maybe you were too hasty in construction, back when you thought of your ship as its component pieces. Here, you made the frame with a cedar plank instead of oak. Replace it — it takes hours, but it is well worth your time. Nail cedar over the new oak, take the time to carve it into a slow furl in the shape of a dolphin. Some part of you sees into the future. It will be beautiful, when you are done, and will serve a function well in keeping the spray from the deck during storms. When you are done with that—

—see the holes. Jump from your previous task to this now. Holes: find them, patch them. A knothole-plank used here — mark it up in Dayglow orange, remember to tack it with tar later. Push the paint through with your fingers, and before you forget, hoist yourself up with a rope, climb into the great skeletal belly of your ship and wipe your fingers where the hole shows there — remember to tar that too, from the inside. You'll thank yourself later.

Hoist yourself out. The ground crew are ecstatic, finishing the great ribbed fin of the rudder, but you only have eyes for scrutiny. Here, planks don't fit together right. There, components made to fit other components but not aligned. Go there, align them — takes all day, work by floodlight if you have to. A tight ship doesn't mean just a crew, but the structure as a whole. Burn through your coffee thermos, discard it. Chew lemon, bitter bricks of coffee grounds, the hairy seeds of rosehips from those sweet, stubborn things greening at the edges of the docks, where the plastic boats — so small and fragile, trapped to a few short miles from land lest they run out of oil — have yet to smash their roots to pulp. The rosehips taste like dandelion fluff and nutty bark, but you'll take anything to keep awake. Be aware that you are burning yourself again, burning out. See the look in the eyes of the shipyard workers: worried, your face reflecting Dayglow orange from their pupils where you forgot to wash yourself.

Continue anyway. You are an island on fire, a firework turned toward the ground, a Molotov burning in the hand and never thrown. You can see the finish line.

And eventually, somehow, before you have collapsed from exhaustion or died: It is done. You look about, frantic, hands aching for work. But there is none. The masts stand straight. The tar holds thick and black, covering you and the dockworkers and and the ship in equal proportions. The main deck is sanded smooth, and those beneath are too. The rudder and steering are rigged, ratlines set — not by you, but by a hired team who showed you how everything fit together, where things might go wrong, what to do in the best and worst cases. How to tend to the steel-reinforced ropes, where to purchase new ones — do not replace this with that, whatever you do. You remembered it all as they told you. You took notes anyway, stored them in the room that you decided would become your cabin.

Look further. See the smoothness of the planks. The perfect sandpapered, woodglued Jenga of your life. Let your vision go blurry.

Your head hurts. Your hands hurt. Your muscles hurt. Your back hurts. Everything is all so beautiful. Squint to the bruised horizon, feel your skin wrinkle in the baleful glare — hear the sunset calling to you, telling you that it is time to go home. It tells you this every night, and you hurt so much.

Ignore it, for now. Set to the ship again, look for last things to do. Holes to patch, planks to wax, pieces to fit into place. Is the ballast the right weight? Are the sails curled properly? Is the anchor putting too much strain on the beam? Is the bilge correct, filled as it should with rodent-killing fuzz that the sailors told you never to breathe? Is the boom in the right place? Does anything look wrong?

It doesn't, but you try to find it anyway. Your eyelids droop as you clamber, scamper, crawl along your ship like all the many spiders already taking up residence there. Your muscles are lax, legs wobbly. Nearly drift off — panic, and in adrenaline catch yourself, scrape your palms red and slide to a bloody, fleshy halt on a chance splintered rope, one holding up your ship from the deck and oily slide below. Hold tight to the rope, squint in pain, tuck your legs about. Why are you up here? But don't answer — don't even think now. You're exhausted beyond belief. Even wildfires have their limits.

Slide to the ground, burning out. Find yourself staggering, caught under the arm by a watchful dockworker — a familiar face with unfamiliar warmth, hair braided tight against her scalp. She walks with you, arm over your shoulders, keeping you upright, and points you toward where you have gone only once since you started. Go home, she says, and her meaning, not her words, is what you hear. The rest is swallowed up by exhaustion and the song of the sea.

Don't resist. And so: Go home. Gratefully, feeling like something is missing the instant you step from the harbor. It's not an item on you that you've forgotten. It takes a few hundred steps before it clicks: It's your ship, the smell of it, the feel of the grain. It lingers against your skin and and in your nostrils, the lifeblood of your last few weeks permeating your soul. You belong back there. Chips of cedar and oak thick like a lover's fingers caught in your hair, you stumble down the street, down a familiar avenue, turn left.

Fumble for the key. You don't have it. Grab the spare from under the doormat — or was it the plant pot, or was it the space above the porchlight? You don't remember. It feels right, somehow, to have forgotten. You are bleary, your world unfocused, and you find you cannot remember the location of your room as you find the key — it was taped under the mailbox — and slip inside.

Crash on the first couch you see. Not your bed, but you don't care. The dust smells wrong to you. You like it less in this place you were supposed to remember.

Face the door. Then turn over, facing the cushions. Then back again, and back again. Try to move the armrest, to give yourself some breathing room. Can't: It drops from your tired fingers, moves close to your face. You feel like the cushions will suffocate you in your sleep — feel your warm breath rebound off the pale silk. Breathe it right back in, cycling your own air. Let the world grow hazy, but don't give yourself the thought that you will die from breathing yourself. Too many people like this for the world to take you now.

It's dark, but you are wide awake. This is a stranger's house now — you were tired at the shipyard, you muse, because it had become your home, leaving this walled-shelter-away-from-rain-and-cold to be something else. You don't know what the place you are in is now. A refuge? An enclosure? You feel it has roots, this place-with-four-walls-and-a-roof, digging deep into the soil. Imagine you can feel viny tendrils inside, creeping from the walls, leafy and wriggling, seeking you out by body heat. Imagine that if you spend too much time here, they will embed you with little roots of your own, and you will never want to leave.

Keep rootless, you think to yourself. The thoughts of a true insomniac.

Turn over. Again. And again. Your body, lying down, is alien to you — your landscape has changed, muscles where there was once slack, sweat where you were once dry, wiry hair where you were once smooth. You reek, on your tongue and in your nose, odour stinging your eyeballs: sawdust, oil, and the sweet smell of iron fused to steel.

How many nights have you spent sleepless? Curl your legs, tuck your knees to your chest. Drift on waves of alpha and near-theta. So many nights sleepless, and you don't even have to sleep to dream. A hazy myriad of colours and shapes comes over you: you find yourself swaying, though there is no breeze, and heavy.

So, so very heavy, swaying from strong pale ropes above a sliding deck scraped raw and ready for tomorrow. Under the layers of tar, your skin is grainy with sandpaper residue and leftover orange marking paint. It itches, almost pleasantly, as the layers harden. You can't wait to touch the water. You will be butter-smooth, buoyant, washed clean from dust and chalkmarks so the barnacles can grow like armour. But right now, you are still dry, except for your insides. You can feel oil on your topdeck, left there strategically, and as the night lightens to purple on the horizon you find the oil has disappeared, exchanging its weight into you: its liquid strength seeps through your bones, hardens but does not brittle your elegant splendor of a ribcage, the artist's brushstroke of your deck and keel.

You are almost ready. You can feel it in your sails. In your masts.

In the wind.

Who am I? But you can't answer that. Even as your mind races, your body slows, and eventually, at long last, as the moon begins her nightly descent from behind the curtains, you submit. In a home now alien to you: Taste the remnant ocean breeze on your tongue, the memory of salt in your lungs, and let the long-adjusted sway of your legs on rigging bring you the rest of the way to sleep.

Drift without mind or body. Dream of ropes, charts, and stars.


Four days later. A week and more's worth of effort packed into those few short, tight days. You ache, but you are warm. You are ready. It is done.

Today is a golden dawn. The smell of hot tar and sawdust sticks to your skin, grits your eyes, roughens your tongue. Your hair is tacky with chalk; your hands are sticky with dried blister-fluid where you scraped your hands when climbing the ratlines. You are battered, worn, skin slick with oil, muscles loose like slack bundles of rope. But when you walk down the pier, it is with the languid, carefree motion of someone with the strength of ten men, or perhaps someone walking in a dream.

You are not dreaming. You are oh so beautifully awake and alive.

Your ship is down from its shipyard cradle, held back by the ropes again — this time, keeping her from sliding forward. The ropes are large enough to hold back a leviathan. You watch, eyes gleaming and heart tight in your throat. Nod to the dockmaster — and then, with a great heave, the ropes are loosened, and along the oiled ramp to the sea your ship slides smoothly, just as have hundreds of thousands of ships have done before — and then with a bright, gleaming tremor in your lungs and throat, she enters the sea.

A sob. A weep. Joy. Oh, joy, oh elation and joy. She floats. She is seaworthy.

There is one rope still, long and laddered, tying her to the docks so you can board her. Do so — climb naturally, a skill honed over the weeks, smoothly as a monkey. Now you are aboard, heart in your chest and lungs catching. Look down – it’s morning, early morning, and the fog hasn’t lifted. The air is soup, chowder, thick with sea fog. You can smell fish, fresh oil, sea life on the wind. Breathe deep. Goosebumps line your skin, but don’t be afraid. See the other ships, out there? You’ve made it at last.

Over by the docks, where your ship would never fit, lie tiny, plastic-framed and metal-lipped speedboats — the kind you used to own, when you first desired to sail, and the kind you learned could not suffice to sate your sailor's heart. No more. They are so small – plastic-framed and metal-lipped things, little more than plastic trash with an engine, sail, and steering wheel attached.


Nothing like the lady of the sea you stand on now. Below you, all things you can find in the garbage dump. But here, with your ship? You made this. Made her. What you have is a majesty.

Feel the smooth grain of her rail. Run your hand along her deck — remember with your skin, not your mind, how it felt to set that specific plank in, how the scorching sun ruined your back as you labored to set the oil and cover the deck in tarps lest a nightly rain ruin the wood. The care to which you made and tended this stretch of deck, this set of ropes, this stretch of steel. Stand up, now – see the masts before you, two sharp spires bolt upright, perfectly angled and with sails waiting to unfurl like damp butterfly wings held erect, waiting for the wind. Smile and run your hands along the smooth masts – find a nick, here, a rough patch there. Frown. Look toward the shipyard but don’t leave, don’t panic. Still your heart. You’ll have all the time in the world, once you’ve set sail, to adjust your course. To fine-tune your instruments, sandpaper smooth all the nicks, scratches, dents from construction, to turn your ship into perfection. You weren’t going to get it right first try. Nobody does. It’s okay.

Your ship bobs. You are in the water. The sea. Realize that, finally, wholly. The sea laps, rocks you. A gentle tide today — a good day for learning. The sea legs came naturally to you. You didn’t even notice the adjustment, did you? You learned it on the docks, in the shipyard, by the dockhands and shipyard workers. The way they walked, the manner in which they held themselves on the deck fresh from an expedition. You learned by intuition, judgement, and assessment. By experience. Now you are here, and it has all finally paid off, and all is golden.

It is still dawn. Look to the stars, now – still visible in the light. Squint, now, chart your course — feel the glossy pages, beaded with water-droplets pearled with sand, from the books you read between nights and days before your time at the docks, those frantic few weeks. Feel the pictures and pages as an old memory guiding your eyes, a thick bound book of a study once obscure made crystal in your brain. Feel the sea at your shoulder: see her misty finger pointing out the North, the East, the clouds that cover a storm coming from the South. The morning fog obscures, but you are not discouraged. The fog — the unknown — just makes your horizons all the more full of possibility. Of adventure.

You know what to do now. The wheel is firm under your hands. Wave goodbye to the dockworkers – you’ll remember them always. They wave back to you, still visible through the fog, faces obscured in your vision but perfect in your memory. No matter how far you are, the lights of this harbor will always be lit for you.

It's time, at last. Breathe the smell of the sea.

Light the foglamps.

Set the engines to full.

Feel the rumble.

Set sail.


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