—from the notebooks of John Harrison, clockmaker
So little for looking. Barely albedo in sixpence pools. Sound’s blind sight
clearer than wet reflections from the quay. This lanternless kalends.
Chiaroscuro more obscure for fog. Intermittent the slap and damp shatter
of water on barnacled wood. Fainter but uninterrupted a thousand dull
thuds all at once. Our oilskins wick away a light rain. Leather footsteps
shuffle three-four on the dock below, the ship’s deck above. A gangway of
steep planks shrilly giving between them. Upward the ballast and heavier
loads. Pulleys milling salt around rusted axels. Coir tight as pig iron
stretched between basso and a cricket’s chirp. The crates it girdles noiseless.
As if their heft offset their measure in rumor and bruit. Trundle alow.
Strained inhalations. Two wharf men turn a treadwheel crane. Like dropsy
one to the other the descant they wheeze.
Enceinte the ship. Rough the metal peal of mooring cleats relieved of their
lines. Chirruped returns from hawser rings. Away and dim we sluice. Aft-
to-fore some seventy feet neither carrack nor cog tracing oxbow tenebrae
on demimonde time. Past stippled chimneypots reared against manufactory
fog. Past fish scales pinchbeck aglimmer where neap mud grouts the
cobblestone walks rucked into the river’s banks. Harbor to sound to sea.
Oceanward. Oceangoing, erstwhile and still, a sinecure for sad geometers.
Failed figurists and numbers men, disappointed to a man, who apportion
the world in circles they square. Compute its movements with medleys of
primes and bellows of ether from angels’ wings. Ptolemy’s atlas had twenty-
seven maps. And the maps overlaid with coordinate grids he lifted from
Roman gazetteers. Hearsay, half-complete. East to Cattigara. Westward
back to Hy-Brasil and afterward be dragons.
Hapless, absent longitude for eras on end. Seafarers played a game of make-
believe with the no-places of no-man’s-land and believed they were real
enough. They sailed an orthogonal world. Posthaste and timorous they
made for the latitude where their destination lay. Hewed to the line and
hoped for the best. Set a watchman to surveil the sky. Venous blue.
Answerless, empyrean sloe. Up at lauds, agog amidships. Quondam
bowsprits bent double over the gunwale begging Heaven for the heavens’
ways. Their Jacob’s staves aimed at ignes fatui. Distant shimmers past the
farthest outposts of the air. Pale fanals through a glasseye view. And empires
have steered by such beacons as these.
Crotone, where Pythagoras lived. Amidst his mysteries and his initiates.
Eavesdroppers apprenticed to smithies auditing hammerfalls on anvils for
arcaner equations to solve enciphered skies. Their solfège a spherical book
writ large, cosmos and crystal quires, tethered with an outré clef, primum
mobile, between an F and a G.
Acute cutwater and the dogwatch hours. Subfusc cumulus. Holier hues
become mundane. Overhead, calico sheets lax and smacking like clobbered
drumheads daven arrhythmic in the yardarms of the mainmast. Whitecaps
rake lather along the carvel planks. They heave and subside. Crest again.
Disfigure the imago coeli they’re said to reflect. Marled gunmetal and chop.
Erratic, fickle hisses unceasing. Argent babble. A madcap movement from
the broken music of the spheres. Argent babble, evermore. Astrolaters
dumbstruck, at a loss to intuit solutions to the chips in the hum.
Anon the wick-trimmer to tend to the lamps. His face a yellow mask in the
whale oil glow that goes before him. A yellow that yellows jaundice in lieu
of gold. He lifts the globe from off my lamp. Pares the wick and all the while
he keeps it alight. In my quarters, dismantled clocks. Fusée chains, levers
laid out in trays. Minute screws, my tools, my springs, and brass axels like
quills. Calculations for torque that cover the trusses.
Transfixed to see such fragile things undone. Says he’s sailed indefinite tours
and poured his oils and kindled lamps. His look a saccade from my bench
then back to me and he ventures. Ventures overheard conjecture that he
repeats of pilot cocks. From where he couldn’t say. One estaminet bay
begins, ends. Begins to resemble the next. And yes, I say. Clocks to
transfigure time for place. To right meridians and obsolesce the distance to
the moon. Because, wick-trimmer.
A frigate bound for Hastings. Bleak forecast, once upon a thunderclap.
Enter gusts, insurmountable swells. Trust the pilot, the pilot implores the
captain. He cleaves to a course he charts in angles swindled from the moon.
Swings the swindled angles from a sextant’s arm through the closest
constellations he knows. Frantic, scrap paper reckoning, impromptu and
pitchpoling toward the Channel Islands. Ushant, it should have been, to
slack anchors for sanctuary.
But from here you know the story. Know the sextant’s eye concenters the
storm’s, and know. It’s neither navia nor caput. Know the pilot can’t make
heads or tails of constellations or the moon. And when the boatswain swears
he spies grape hyacinth against the sallow granite of Cornish Sicily where
he learned to steer a skiff. The pilot has the captain have him hanged a
mutineer. Commits his body, knocking willy nilly from the crosstrees, to
Then headlong, vessel and crew, into the looming crags. Prow not
splintered, splayed open. As undone as a rotted, ribboned end of line. With
drowned seamen like knots and snags along the gnarled kern inside it. And
the captain alone survives. He kicks, flails. He fights and ebbs forward on a
flowing tide. From his knees on the beach he gasps for help. Mayhap he
prays. Rag-pickers cut him neck to navel for his emerald ring.