My dear Jacqui, I see your face with the closing of my eyes, demanding that I explain myself, and I am left with little choice but to make of this journal you gifted me something of an extended letter. Its hand-stitched pages are a work of art, its leather binding a near mirror for my own hide tanned beneath the sun of Senegal. Mine has been a restorative respite, but now upon the deck of the moored Dorado I stand, making of its rail a writing desk, steeling myself for the long voyage first to Cuba, then home to Manhattan, yearning to be back in your arms.
Ashore the bustle of civilians and dockworkers fills the Dakar air with an excitement not unlike that at the erection of the Loka West steeple so many years ago. Indeed, the wholly Christian ambiance of the scene is given shape as from my perch I observe a corseted Frenchwoman strolling the boardwalk, the parasol in her hand spinning in place upon the shoulder of her pelerine.
Still the pagan persists in this world, and so it goes that this loveliness is disappeared among the dark multitude of the thick-lipped aborigine, all sharp cries and blasphemy as they peddle their leashed goats or caged chickens.
The seawater lapping at the posts of the dock is a vile soup of viscera discarded from the fish cooks above. Gulls dive for the remnants and the air fills with their screeching and cawing.
Over my head looms a mizzen carved into a Corinthian column. All three of the ship’s masts share this design, as though pillars of some ancient Greek temple holding up the sky.
From deck to crow’s nest clamber crewmen like spiders, limbs heaving lanyards behind them and lacing sails to wide spars outstretched like the arms of giants standing Christ-like upon the water. I find myself questioning whether I could now, at forty-five, climb that rigging so. Almost certainly not without great effort, though I confess I feel, at thoughts of you, less the stoic, graying gentleman I am and more the sandy young daredevil I once was.
Far below the crewmen a small boy of seemingly Injun descent shakes a tambourine and dances his way from stern to bow, chirping some lighthearted tune, the lyrics to which betray an ominous foreboding.
Lo here, Jimmy boy
Climbin’ up the mast
Lo here, Jimmy boy
Tie them sails fast
Hear ye, Jimmy boy
Lettin’ out a call
Flyin’ to the water
In a lily white squall
From the foretop two men bark down for the boy to quit the song, and silently I agree. Upon a ship one needs no additional implications of an ill-fated voyage ahead, and already I am unsure what to make of your warning prior to my departure that “Mars and Neptune were in the third conjunction.”
Only moments ago did I bear witness to a frightful sight. From below the sound of chains drew my attention from the riggers to the loading of a colossal beast onto the vessel. Six of the ship’s crew struggled with the iron bonds of a fell creature the likes of which I have never before seen in reality with mine own eyes.
It bore upon its head two horns suggestive of some almost Biblical evil, and upon its sallow flesh the scars of a thousand battles. Against the will of its captors it reeled and, with a roar, sent one of the men plummeting from the gangplank into the murky soup between the deck and the dock.
A Rhinosaurus, surely. Among the ephemera of some back alley curio shop I had once seen a daguerreotype of a tremendous hunter with his foot atop this prehistoric monster. Now here before me was a living specimen.
Beneath the scorching sun a stench of wildness rose from the thing. So narrow was the plank at its feet that the creature’s girth outmeasured it by at least a foot on either side, and with each step the board banked to and fro under the weight.
Still the men struggled, like knights towing a dragon across a drawbridge, until with a ferocious cry their captive reared back onto its hind legs, sending another man into the moat. As though a falling tree, the full might of the colossus thundered back down upon the gangplank, snapping the bridge in two.
An avalanche of bodies rained over the water, the rock-gray boulder of animal hitting first with a splash whose fingers reached me. I watched in horror as three men plunged down after it, as one of the men was impaled upon the monster’s horn, and his back sprouted a dorsal fin.
The creature flailed, further destroying the poor fellow, until the stew of parts discarded from on high was rendered a deep vermilion. A Negro child pointed down from the dock and laughed.
Three sailors materialized at my side and pushed me away as they flung ropes which fell to the water and were taken up by the survivors below. Two of the men competed to pull themselves up the ship’s larboard, but the others took them by the ankles and recommitted them to the task at hand. Clearly this creature had great value, and it needed saved.
One brave soul, bare-chested and hairless but for a waist-length black tail growing out the back of his skull, dared to mount the bucking monster. With great strength and agility, he lassoed the thing’s head with one of the thrown ropes and, with the assistance of two other men, tied it lengthwise to another tether at the animal’s hindquarters. In this way the men succeeded at last in hoisting the gasping beast from the water.
Still atop his subdued steed, the tailed man pried from its horn the mutilated corpus of his crewmate, sending it plummeting back down to the tomato soup below and showering the men still treading water or climbing up the hull with shrapnel of entrails and organs.
I turned from that sight and watched as before me passed a fortress of dark gray. Upon its primary spike was I nearly gored as its handlers barked and led it like some enormous dog across the deck and through a large trap door down into a hold beneath my feet. By the sounds of its shackles and of its rage could I chart the creature’s progress, until at last it seemed to take its place among the rest of our vessel’s cargo.
Now into its compartment has the remainder of the gangway been stowed, and at their posts are the ship’s crew stationed. With a creaking as of an old man standing, the vessel casts off. There are no well-wishers waving from the pier. No loved ones bidding us farewell or quick return. We pass other ships coming or going in the marina, and will soon be out of sight.