Daniel R. Altschuler

The Black Feather

I. solitude

It took me a while to notice that I was the only one left on the water. I had gone as far away from others as possible and had anchored by a key whose red-rooted mangroves protected a small bay of turquoise waters.

Events that happen slowly in relation to the natural rhythm of our lives go unnoticed. We see a good friend every day and we do not perceive his slow decline caused by a disease that consumes him from within. Until someday, perhaps returning from a long vacation, we realize it with grief and horror. At sea, winds, currents, and sunlight change gradually, and we do not perceive it until we suddenly notice the change, perhaps when it is too late because the current has carried us afar.

I rested my back on a cushion on deck, watching the clouds go by and focusing on a Frigate bird searching for dinner from above. I had heard the human cacophony that I did not listen to, modulated by the shifting breeze. It brought the laughter of sirens, shouts of children playing, and music that tourists take to the sea so as not to hear nature´s song. Over time, slowly, civilization´s concert gave way to nature’s symphony, accompanied by the rhythmic metallic sound of the halyards as they hit the mast of my sailboat dancing to the rhythm of the shallow waves.

I wanted solitude. I sought to feel the primal emotion that invades one´s soul when floating on our back on the warm skin of the planet, thinking about everything and about nothing at the same time. The Sun, increasingly swollen and red as it approached the western horizon, left a glittering golden trail on the water.

“This is life” I said to myself.

Yes! solitude for a day is good at sea with its endless blue-green variations with its distant curved horizon which we never reach.

I imagined myself to be the only inhabitant of the planet, facing the sunset, the sky painted in orange and purple hues that grew more intense as the distant Sun approached the horizon. Solitude for a day is healthy, perhaps for up to a week, but for a longer time it can become eternal, to an endless monologue, to only understand us and not understand anything that others say: insanity.

“This is life”, I repeated to derail my train of thoughts, and in that delicious solitude I let myself fall into the water and listened to the sound of air bubbles as I watched colored fish.

II. Me

In my little bay the shadows lengthened. I tossed the rest of a cookie into the water that quivered moved by a thousand small fish that jumped for joy at the miracle of the manna they had received. For them, I was God. It was then that I saw him sitting on a thick horizontal branch of an old red mangrove looking at me.

I closed my eyes tightly for an instant, like someone draining a sponge. I looked at the mangrove again: There was nobody there. “Pareidolia”, I told myself.

It happens to everyone, tricks of lights and shadows. The mind searches for patterns, it sees faces everywhere, virgins in grease stains, sleeping giants in rocks, monsters in the night shadows of a child’s room. It happens because we are descendants of those who inhabited a dangerous world full of predators, who saw faces and beings where there were none. Those who did not see them when they really were there left no descendants.  Darwin’s brilliant idea!

“Such is life”, I told myself and thought of a glass of red wine.

I went below deck to fetch my bottle and look for a corkscrew. I looked at the sky as the Sun set, through my red cup.

“A nice effect” I told myself, it could be photographed for an advertisement.

Soon thereafter a large pale moon, almost full, rose from the opposite horizon at the end of a silver path. I looked at it through my magic glass and it turned into an apocalyptic bloody moon. A red path led to it that caused a cold current to run through my spine.

I heard a voice that whispered to me: “Reflection of the Earth”.

Dante also thought that way, I recalled.

Then, looking at the almost black canvas, some diamonds competed with the Moon for my attention. Diamonds that shine by their own light, forerunners of life, light that after a millennial journey was refracted by my wine glass through which I looked at the universe. There must be thousands of worlds I thought as did Giordano, but we will still be alone, as alone as I was in my silent bay, far from everyone. Distance allows us to be alone, without neighbors, but in the cosmos, we have no choice.

I had been lying on my back with my hands clasped behind my head and I got up to refill my glass. I froze. Breathless, my eyes wide open to better see the bow slightly illuminated by the rising Moon. Goose bumps sprouted on my skin.

He looked at me with a smile, sitting on the bow railing, one hand clutching the forestay, motionless.

An effigy from the sea, a kind of mermaid?

Again, I squeezed my eyes and when I opened them, there he was, with his immutable smile.

“Too much wine”, I told myself.  Breathless, I asked in a whisper: “Who are you?”

Without changing his smile, without any gesture and to my great surprise he answered without moving his lips: “Me”.

Again, those goose bumps.

“Me?” I said after an infinite pause, without thinking that I intended to talk with a specter.

“A Japanese name”, I mumbled, to calm myself.

I was stunned, I took a deep breath, looked for my glass and drank the rest. I looked towards the bow and Me was still there, with his smile. I did not dare move. I kept looking at my hallucination, hoping that at any moment it would fade away, but instead I heard: “Let’s sail”.

The Moon, already higher and smaller, illuminated with its pale light my bay surrounded by dark mangroves, whose silhouettes now looked like sea monsters. Me stayed put, not moving, his light shirt half open, quivered with the breeze.

As if I had been had given an order, I started the auxiliary motor and to my surprise Me raised the anchor. Slowly my sailboat ventured out to sea and then I set the sail.

Soon I found strong winds filling the shimmering sail as my boat cut through the dark waves with authority. I did not doubt that it was Me who said in a firm voice: “Stay your course”.

I fixed my eyes on the compass whose green luminescence indicated S-W. My sailboat moved nimbly, leaving behind a trail of light until after untold time I saw the light of dawn and the wind abated. I faced a dense fog and could only see the nearby water. It was eerily silent but for a seagull, much larger than the ones I knew, that glided across the tip of the mast and told me with a high-pitched squawk that I was near a shore. I decided to anchor and wait.

I did not know where I was, my hallucination had dissipated, and I did not think about Me at that moment.

III. Terra Incognita

I went down to make coffee, as was my custom. Without coffee I could not think of anything other than coffee. Without a coffee it was impossible to start a day, much less one as unforeseen as this one. I had an “expresso” machine in the small kitchen of the sailboat, which was a source of pride. Although the night had been long, or short – I could not say – because somehow time had left me, I did not feel tired, and with the first sips, and the aroma that stimulated my mind, I felt vigorous and thought about exploring the suspected coast with my dinghy as soon as I could see it.

Then I heard distant, indistinguishable noises. Me was nowhere to be seen.

I went up on deck and as the thick mist dissipated with the first rays of the Sun, I perceived the noises with more discernment, but I did not understand them. The mirror of the sea expanded around me, and the curtain gradually became more transparent until finally, as if it were a fogged glass that gradually clears, I saw the coast.

I gazed at the scenery, an image that was not of this world, a grotesque landscape that stood inert and threatening at the same time. I saw an overwhelming and distorted skyline of dirty and cracked concrete stained with rust as if they were reminders of bleeding wounds, twisted iron and broken glass. The mass was so imposing that I thought that by reaching out I could touch the walls of the skyscrapers. Now I understood the noise that the mist had attenuated: huge gray and black birds circulated everywhere, each one with a different screech, harsh and unpleasant. It was a gigantic and endless wall that stretched until lost in the distance.

“We go?” Me asked, and without waiting for an answer prepared the dinghy. I thought about the madness of the castaway, but I was not, and I was also not hallucinating, although … How to know?

Me made a gesture; I started the small engine and headed for the coast. The journey to the old wooden pier was short. As I got closer, the gigantic monstrous raven-like birds intimidated me with their purple eyes and piercing glances.

I tied the dinghy to an old rusty cleat and holding on to it I was able to climb the pier. I wiped my hand on my pants and for an instant I remembered my mother who always scolded me for that.

One of the birds that stood on the end of a sloping pylon launched itself into the air with strong flaps, generating a whirlwind that shook my face and filled my nose with a strange smell. As it went up, a large black feather fell from his wing. I climbed a mound of rubble at the start of the pier and from there, I examined nervously the cracked streets, the huge holes that had been windows, and the spaces opened by fallen walls. I only saw birds, thousands of gigantic birds.

An intensifying wind caused things that hung from buildings to oscillate as if it were a landscape of deformed pendulum clocks, painted by Dali. I did not see Me in that surreal place. Terrified I cried bitterly and ran shivering down the pier towards my dinghy fleeing from a thousand dragons, without looking back at the future.

“Let’s go back”, Me said, surprising me and I hastily prepared the sail.

A strong wind moved the sailboat almost as if it were flying. I kept my compass at N-E, and soon fell asleep.

My cell phone rang. I jumped out of the bunk and hit my head. It was my wife who was waiting for me at the dock as we had agreed. The sun had not yet warmed up the day and somewhat dazed and shaking my head I thought about coffee.

With my dinghy I arrived at the pier, just as a seagull took flight and I thought I saw that it had purple eyes. My wife asked, surprised, why the strong and long hug I gave her, as if we had not seen each other for a long time. “No, nothing,” I replied, “Just glad to see you.” With her hands she shook my pants to wipe off a reddish rust stain. I wanted to make sure I had tied the dinghy securely, just as a gust of wind lifted a large black feather from its bottom and carried it out to sea.

Daniel R. Altschuler is professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Puerto Rico. In 2010 he was awarded the Andrew Gemant award of the American Institute of Physics for his work on the public understanding of science. His latest book The Women of the Moon was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.