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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 4, The Artist

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Chapter 4 of “Going Aloft,” the serialized nonfiction by John Wolfe.

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It was dark in the little wood-trimmed bunk and freezing cold. There was no heat onboard the schooner. Where we were going, we wouldn’t need it. But for tonight, I shivered in my long underwear and burrowed deeper into the blankets I shared with the Artist, pressing myself against her warmth.

Early in the morning we would leave the dock with the falling tide and sail down the Cape Fear River—the first leg in our voyage to the tropical islands to the south. I had a vague idea of what to expect from my readings of “Moby Dick” and Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf,” but so far my only offshore sea-time had been on an enormous Carnival cruise ship when I was 12.



On this voyage I would not be merely a passenger; I would be a helmsman, a rope-puller, a navigator. My actions would help determine the course of our voyage, literally and metaphorically. It was to be a trial by fire, a pass/fail test of seamanship, a rite of passage. Our destination lay across an expanse of the ferocious and seemingly limitless Atlantic. We were the nucleus that would drive our small ship across the waves.

The Artist made small sleeping noises, directing my thoughts to her. How remarkable was this woman who lay beside me! She dropped everything in her life and put her scholastic pursuits on hold to sail to paradise with a boy she met only months ago. She had zero seafaring experience, only an eye for beauty and a heart full of passion that served her well in her craft.

Petite, shy and timid, the Artist wasn’t the kind of person you would expect to have a wildness about her if you passed her on the street. Shortly before I met her, she chopped off her waist-length, curly hair out of frustration. She was more comfortable with it short. It showed off her hazel-green eyes that were spread wide across her nose. She looked like a fawn holding some dark secret—fair skin, covered with freckles, yet always soft, wonderfully soft.

She made me laugh with astute little snippets of insight interjected into conversation. I can’t describe the feeling that would overcome me as we stayed up late to watch the moon rise over the ocean, while talking about nothing in particular yet everything at the same time. What a wondrous mind she had—an artist’s mind. Perhaps I was so fascinated by it because we operated differently, completely differently. We were absolute opposites. It’s incredible and curious to know and love somebody who is right alongside you, experiencing the same physical stimuli, but what she noticed and took away from a drink of the shared cup of experience tasted different than the flavors on my own tongue.

I like to think of myself as a logical person—stoically pursuing truth in its rhetorical form, Socratically questioning the world around me. It’s the shield I present; the one I cower behind. The Artist’s truth was the same truth I sought (at least, I think it was—as far as I know, the only possible truth is one learned through experience). Yet, her methodology of the search was wholly separate. She intuited things, felt them—she fascinated me as a creature of emotion. Emotion was her queen and she its subject. Sometimes emotion was a benevolent ruler that would grant her the power to see things beyond what my logical eyes could register. It raised the question: Which one of us is right? Is it possible for both of us to be?

There was a dark side to her, too—I could not paint a complete picture without mentioning it. It was as if her consciousness was a small, fragile animal, tethered by some unknown cruel master to a hideous black weight that pulled her slowly toward the door of death. Being intuitive, she of course could see this weight. I caught glimpses of it at times and felt powerless. No one could stop its horrible, slow advance. A morbid side of her wished the weight would just crush her, already—just end it, for God’s unmerciful sake. It was like a dreadful feeling rested inside her: “I’ve been living this way my entire life and have exhausted my will to fight it anymore.” Maybe the weight was mortality, and she simply saw it with more clarity than the rest of us, who all live in a world with two feet on the ground and black nooses around our necks.

When I squint, sometimes I see my own mortality. Rather than hurry its advance, I pause in the fleeting moments of my finite life and fill my days with that which brings me joy: sunsets, walking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, laughing with dear friends, as we all march in the same direction. It is the knowledge of my death that makes my life so sweet. I carry the tradition of every poet in the pages of history. Whitman spoke of that word—that which is sweeter than all the rest. Thoreau sucked the marrow out while he still could. By going to sea, by placing my own mortality at the whim of the ocean, I would try to learn the secret—one we will all discover, eventually.

The Artist felt the finiteness of her own life more than I ever thought possible. Her intensity was like looking at a fiery supernova. It was both her tragic weakness and source of inspiration and power. Only by holding her finger on the burning pulse of life, even as it burned her alive, could she make her art—beautiful, complicated and expressive.

I often wouldn’t see it until she looked at me. Then, all of a sudden, there it was. How had I not seen it the entire time? Naked and pure and holiest of holy, a divine expression of pure feeling, her art was the surging ocean of life channeled through the trembling conduit of her sliver of a body. She showed me the way to immediate truth—and still does.

Without her I would be broken. It goes without saying I love her, desperately, with every aching muscle in my body and neuron in my mind. I dread the day she loses her battle against gravity and it leaves behind nothing but a scorched shell—the charred remnants of a once-beautiful creature.

On this voyage of discovery to the south, something awakened inside her—a green sprout of love for her life. But for now she sleeps beside me in our freezing little bunk, awaiting, as I do, the trials of the blue abyss. I close my eyes and try to fall asleep. Tomorrow morning will be different.

John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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