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Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Engineer

by Hannah Hindley

     He  navigated by sound: like a man at a lightless anchor watch, his invisible bearings spoke to him with voices that only he understood.  There, the water pump chugging and lapsing with use and inactivity; underfoot, the bell-like rush of unseen pipes; the faint buzz of electric wires behind their paneling.  His blood thrummed on pitch with the whir of fans in the battery bank; his breathing matched the chink and knock of wrenches tapping against the bulkhead with sway of the ship.  He moved toward interruptions in the strain, knew where to adjust, when to dislodge or prime or tighten, how to ease the ship’s mechanical rhythms into a murmuring purr.   He could hear the thump of draining bilges, could hear the quiet whine of the charging generator.  And--pausing there next to the silent engine, an old picture of a little blue-eyed girl held loosely between thumb and palm--the old engineer could even, almost, hear her voice.

***

     “Daddy, do you have a treasure for me from the engine room?”  In his memory, she is only as tall as his waist, and her blue, blue eyes are still wide with interest.  It is not a new memory, not a new question, and it repeats itself in the corner of his mind like one of the ship’s mechanical cycles, returning to him, unsurprising but a little different each time, just like it was those long years ago: familiar and compelling every time. 
     “Of course I have a treasure, sweet pea,” he said then and every time, “but you’ll have to close your eyes.” 
     She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut, hands open with a zen-like detachment, mouth curved with quiet happiness.  He would rummage ceremoniously through the engine room which, always tidy, still had secret corners and drawers suitable for unearthing incomparable gems, one of which he would extract and place in her waiting palms. Sometimes it was a rusty screw. Sometimes a silvery spring.  She knew not to expect, knew that the unspoken agreement was to accept her treasure with joy and astonishment. And sometimes those treasures really did loosen her little jaw with wonder: a knife-sharpener made from diamond, a compass that glowed and drifted like magic into reliable position, a ball bearing that rolled like mercury between her fingers.
     Every time he returned to port, she’d be waiting to rush belowdecks.  She, too, knew how to listen.  On each ship that carried him into port, she’d follow the unseen clink and hum, smiling shyly at the deckhands and oilers as she hurried down companionways in search of the center of the sound, and in that buzzing hub, he’d be waiting for her with a wide hug among his machines.  On those days, she’d walk home along the waterfront with her new treasure in one fist and her father’s hand in the other.  She liked the way his skin was leathery from his work, how his fingertips were always a little dark with grease.  She’d trace her fingers along each of his, memorizing the different tools tattooed across the back of each like skeletal X-rays of specialized bones: a drill down his index finger, a wrench opening inward at the base of his thumb. 
     Of course, he wasn’t always home to warm her hand with his or to fill it with electrical tape and colored wire.  In those gaps and silences, between one homecoming and the next, he began to lose her.   By the time she was shoulder-height, she’d found something new along the waterfront, something that made her late for his arrivals and softened her eyes with a faraway look.  In the stretches of time her father left for sea, she left for sails.  She left the sounds behind, left her screws and springs lined up along her bedroom shelf, and began learning how to maneuver motorless boats in the harbor. 
     Boats without motors. 
     He’d see them at a distance sometimes as he climbed the gangway, moving across the water: relics of a time gone by, like horse-drawn carriages and bicycles-built-for-two.  By the time she was old enough to have earned her electrician’s certificate, she’d left home entirely--gone off to a different coast, in search of bigger boats with bigger pieces of cloth.  He wondered sometimes if it had been an act of defiance, if she was wasting her nimble fingers and sharp mind on rope and canvas because of something he had said or left unspoken.  He’d power his ships across the sea and return to his gray bay with more noise in his head than usual.  At the end of each trip, the engineer would walk home from the terminal with empty hands, cursing himself for never having taught his daughter the real difference between treasure and trash. 

***

     He tucked the photograph back into his work bench and checked the porthole with a slipping feeling in his belly.  The water moved past more slowly than ever.  His old fingers--the black ink along them green now with time--throbbed with a quiet ache that filled all his body.  How brutal, he thought, how weird.  My daughter’s world has crashed in all around me but she herself remains an ocean away. 
     The engine room had grown quieter and quieter as his daughter’s absence had widened across the years, leaving more room for the noise of his own thoughts.  It began with slower work, pressure from the shipping company to conserve fuel as prices skyrocketed, to clean the engine, to run it less--an occasional voyage where the engine wasn’t used at all.  He noticed, upon boarding each new vessel, that some had thick poles running vertically up from the deck.  The companies began shifting the cargo, moving it below deck to protect it from slipping in the new, shifting rock and sway that the ships took on when the engine idled.  The journeys grew longer.  His equipment grew cold.  He would slink aboard each vessel with lowered eyes, avoiding contact with the new young crew who spliced rope instead of wire, the cocky new captains who spoke of pressure systems and wind. 
     He sought refuge in the sounds that remained.  He listened for small things that needed fixing.  Each morning’s engine check was like a little sunrise, and all day afterward he would grow cold with his machines.  How many real sunrises he missed in the darkness belowdecks, he couldn’t count, except perhaps in the wrinkles that crept out from the corners of his eyes, or in the small losses of height as his stoop deepened just a little each year.  And all the while, the sea slid ever so slowly past the portholes, and the masts on the decks of the vessels heightened and multiplied as he passed among them on his way to work.

***

     But now, the noise!  Bright sound: urgent, loud.  His whole body startled, electrified.  Alarms bellowed the engineer awake from his thoughts, and he looked around the engine room at the flashing lights, listened to the ringing of metal as the sound carried through all his machines like ripples through water.  The engineer ignored drills as a matter of habit.  This was unscheduled, though, and the the clatter of footsteps rushing toward deck worried him.  The whole compartment rang like a bell, and the engineer sighed and cracked his knuckles and followed the sound of hurried feet upward.
     It was the first time he’d left the engine room while underway, and the sun blinded him a little, but it wasn’t the light that took his breath away so much as the sweeping wash of silence, deeper even than that of his idle machines.  There were no pumps up here or currents moving through wire. He felt as if he’d stepped into one of those movies without noise, and he staggered, dazzled, onto the deck, where even the shouts of deckhands seemed muffled and distant in the slow spin of his mind. In this dizzy quiet, he watched as a group of men pulled a dripping sailor back onto deck--they’d worked fast, and the man-overboard alarms had already quieted below.  The wet man shimmered in the sun like a freshly-caught fish, panting and gripping the arms of his rescuers.  The engineer looked up, trying to clear his head, and his breath caught for the second time that minute.
     Above him, bellied out from those dark masts, was more cloth than he’d ever seen in one place.  It strained with the push of wind, curved brightly like light itself. This was no harbor-bound dingy.  The sails looked like they contained the whole sky. 
     As the engineer watched with shallow lungs, the noise rushed back to him.  They were little sounds, a new frequency.  He caught the groan of taut line, the quiet whistle of air among high cables.  The movements of the sailors came alive with grunts and chants as they adjusted the rigging, heaving in places, feeding line back into the sky in others. The cloth overhead slapped and whiffled, then quieted as the ship eased closer into the wind. The wood underfoot spoke with a voice he’d never heard on the metal grating belowdecks. He could hear the quiet rush of water against the bow, could hear the slap of dolphins’ bodies as they followed the forward push of the ship with leaps and splashes.  The whole vessel whispered and clattered, pulled, thrummed.  The engineer stood open-mouthed. Here was a new machine, powered by sky and muscle.  Each part shifted quietly.  Things settled into perfection under the tug of hands and the push of wind.  What power!  He thought.  What elegance. 

     The creak of a wheel drew his attention aft, and the old engineer turned to seek out the the navigator of this wild, surprising ship.  A woman stood at the helm, and and as she looked forward to adjust her course, her eyes caught his.  They were blue, blue, and alive with interest--and wide now, too, with recognition, with light.  She had grown taller, and her face showed where the wind had shaped it, but her astonished smile hadn’t changed a bit.  The engineer moved toward her slowly, and his wide, lined palms were open to the sky, full now, so full of unspeakable treasure.