In Irons

by Andy Smart

We must’ve built ourselves a boat before I started dreaming because in the dream we’re amidships in deep water under a full sail. Pressure in the atmosphere is steady.

What I know about boats I’ve cobbled together from movies like Jaws, books like The Old Man and The Sea, stories like Crane’s “The Open Boat”, and an essay by Phillip Gerard. In that last one the author emerges from a terrified huddle to find, among the aftermath of a hurricane, his candy-apple-red racer splintered and split from bow to stern. The essay ends with material loss as an indignant punctuation to the other, more profound, losses in the piece.

Sometimes I bring fear on myself. I crave it then create it in my sleep. Awake I have anxiety and I dull it with drinking. Asleep I can be a victim of consequence, circumstance, poor weather, or sailing a dreamboat into the wind. I think I love waking up screaming because I wake up. After fright there is a rush of endorphins, a great relief, glee, an asexual orgasm of how silly I was to forget I’m just in bed. After fright there is a blink of easiness. Then: a long fit of anxiousness, wakefulness, drunkenness, madhouse diarizing in typewriter font. In the wake of calm there is needful thinginess, a feeling that I’m an object with no value unless terror is acting upon me, that I’m like a buoy that, without a sailor to see it, ceases to exist. This is what the opposite of sleep has come to mean.

My father used to threaten me when I got sad: I’ll give you something to cry about! Then he killed himself and made good on all that bluster. I didn’t dream of him at all for months. I was afraid to.

Beyond the mountains, more mountains. Under the water, more water. I’d like to drown of heights one time.

At reliable intervals during my dream the conditions worsen. You are at the helm. This much remains constant. First the water around us begins to smell of rain and then the rain comes, attended by fog. This fog has the mouthfeel of whiskey. Soon I’m tipsy from breathing, woozy from the heave and sway. Wind is at a six on the Beaufort scale—strong breeze. Your jacket has buttoned itself and your glasses, rain-streaked, have slipped down your nose.

Dad wore thick glasses all his life. He never went out in the rain. Or if he did it was to drive me to school after his overnight shift at the Post Office, so he was half-blind with fatigue to begin with. If his lenses were smudged to blindness I never would have known.

It gets dark. Then it gets darker. Rain and wind cut sideways, jibing across the hull. They have not only taste and smell now, but color and shape: wind is a herd of blue horses and rain is a smoke-colored whip to drive them.

I never understood “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Never cared to. But the good south wind still blows behind and no sweet birds follow. Seagulls, ill at ease when I found us in my dream, have long since taken flight. All my book learning fails and I’m off course into what real sleep must be. Should I increase twist on the sail and power down for control? Cold now. The barometer says we’re under different pressures, each of us. Mine, as the passenger, is low. Nothing, not even drowning, could be my fault. The wind in my belly should be minimal. But there’s a gale in my gut and I’m sore afraid. You are a system of high pressure. You should be twirling like a waterspout, these choppy waters an invitation to turn stormy. I sense there’s no bowels or appendix in you, no simple heart, no sympathetic nerves. This is not to say you’re unfeeling, but that you are in tune to the music of weather. Inside you there is rigging. Mast, mizzenmast, keel, anchor, hawse pipe. Blow the gathering gale and in the distance new music: an aeolian harp.

“Request permission to be scared,” I say.

“Granted, but not advised. If you get scared you’ll close your eyes. Might miss something.”

My father left for work the day he died. That’s what we thought, anyway, the sleeping survivors. When the gun he put in his mouth went off it must’ve made a noise. But no one heard it. That sleep. That fucking sleep.

Some folks tell new sailors to capsize their boats on purpose once or twice, for practice. I came to the water too late. And only because I know you. Dad upended the whole marina. Keelhauled me, put me in irons, shaved my balls with a rusty razor early in the morning.

Now lightning and big thunder. I begin to pray like I learned to in grade school. Blue horses stampede across the hull again. Again. Again. Lightning is their whinny and it is, like Dylan Thomas warned, not forked by my words.

You are smiling.

The sea sucks itself through a straw like a milkshake and sneezes before it can swallow. Waves the size of big waves surround and succeed us. We tack. We counter steer. And by we I mean you. For you this is a puzzle made of elements and you are going to solve it.

At one point we bail water. The bow is sagging. If I have nothing else I have strong back.

I don’t want to wake yet. Not yet.

We float into a meadow in the sea. A clearing. The negative space around constellations draws a portrait of the heavens plotting their revenge for crafty sailing. We drift a bit in silence. Everything disappears except the grin of the moon, the beam and tack of our boat, your unbuttoned coat, the glasses you don’t wear, and me laying supine on the deck. Around you the black air paints a picture I can’t see.

There begin to be stars. There have always been stars.

“You okay, Chief?” I ask.

“This,” you say. “This is terrifying.”

There is, you tell me, no such thing as silence. Only the sound of missing something.

So we beat on. Or whatever able-bodied seamen do in the face of the almighty.

You are my brother, brother. I start laughing and therefore I begin to awake. This is the worst- case scenario: I wake up smiling. I can fear neither day nor night nor the consequences of either for a while.

Damn the luck.


ANDY SMART earned his MFA in nonfiction from the Solstice Low-Residency Program at Pine Manor College. His work has appeared in Salamander, Glassworks, River Heron Review, and elsewhere. Andy lives in Missouri and online at His favorite things include puppies and the Boston Bruins. 

Photo by Drone Trotter from Pexels

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