[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]
Max sails through the fog.
There are sharks on these seas with splayed fins that let them fly for up to thirty seconds in the air. There are crystal spires of such intricate elegance that Max stops and stares at them for hours. That is the fastest he can perform the act of appreciating their beauty. There are reefs. There are fishhawks. There are red dolphins. There are death metal mermaids in waterproof t-shirts on these seas.
And there are Buddha Pirates.
Through the fog Max sees a granite hand. Its position offers infinite blessings to all humanity.
It is moving.
It drifts slowly towards him.
He can see the arm.
He can see the body. It is a Buddha. It is a great granite Buddha. It is the great granite Buddha prow of a ship that sails in these seas.
Monks murmur sutras. He can hear them. Their voices rise and fall like the surf.
Monks walk on the head of the Buddha. They pace their meditation tracks. Their footsteps are a soft shuffling that rebounds off of the fog.
They click their meditation beads.
There are no sails.
There are no oars.
There is only the power of the monks’ meditation.
“Wa-hey,” cries Max. “That isn’t enlightenment!”
And casting its black shadow over the fog they unfurl their pirate flag and sound their deep, low pirate horn.
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.
The Island of the Centipede
“Oh,” says Max.
He pulls at his sail and it fills.
“Anatman, dukkha,” say the monks. “Anatman, dukkha.”
“Jesus,” says Max.
His pulse is racing and the clicking of the monks’ beads fills his ears. He stands up, convulsively, driven by exigencies into a sudden burst of skill and drive.
Held to the boat by a harness and clinging to a rope he leans back out of the catamaran.
The boat jumps forward, its starboard hull lifting from the water, its sail straining; 10, 12, 15, 17 knots, and pulling off to pass the pirate ship by its side.
He can feel his attachment to material existence wavering.
The world subsides around him.
Max dips his left hand into the chaos. He spreads his fingers in the nautical symbol for low friction.
Today the chaos is congenial.
The surface of it slickens.
The boat hits 22 knots, which proves to be one and a half knots faster than enlightenment.
The wind whips past him. The catamaran shakes. Chaos burns his hand, eats into it, wiggles in it. At anything faster than 20.5 knots he has no time to properly absorb the teaching.
The world stabilizes around him.
“Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks. “Anatman, dukkha.”
Low and sonorous sounds the pirate horn.
23 knots. 24.
The chanting of the monks has become nothing more than words to him. Something is writhing in his hand.
25 knots. 28.
He cannot go faster. The boat will flip, trapping him underneath, if he goes faster. Then he will drown or worse and the sharks and monks and shellfish will eat his bones.
Or so he supposes.
He wrenches forth his hand. It is encased in glassy sheen. The meat underneath is burned and tainted.
He heaves a shuddering breath as the shadow of the flag recedes behind him.
It is a miracle that he survives.
It is a miracle that he escapes.
Even with two good hands, Max does not sail very well.
It is June 3, 2004.
The sail goes flat and Max drifts.
He falls fitfully asleep for an hour and six minutes. Then he startles awake with the dawn.
The sail shudders once or twice.
For twenty-seven minutes Max rows. Then his hand spasms and he makes a muffled sound and the oar falls into the water. He sags. The boat drifts west. The oar floats after him, following him at a distance like a puppy uncertain of its position in its master’s good graces.
Max dips his working hand in the chaos. It burns him. He pulls it out.
He dips his hand in again. The burn takes longer this time.
“Right, Max,” he says. “Give it time to adapt to you.”
He pulls his hand free.
That’s what Meredith had said when teaching Max to sail. “You can even swim in it,” she says. “You just need to give it time to adapt.”
Then the white thing writhes inside his wounded hand—he’s not sure, it might be a creature, it might be a bone, it might even be both—and he vomits over the edge.
He struggles for breath.
He vomits again.
Then he rests there, splayed against the boat’s edge, panting.
A shadow rises through the chaos.
It grows larger. It agitates the chaos and leaves contrails of gossamer in its wake.
Red Mary bursts past the surface, her claws long, her teeth sharp, her shirt advertising the band Dismember.
Chaos sprays over Max and Red Mary’s fishtail lands heavily on the deck and the ship rocks and she writhes forwards towards Max.
Chivalry stalls Max for a fraction of a second. It proves irrelevant; he is a second and a half too slow. By the time he has his gun out of the holster with an unaccustomed hand she is on top of him and his head cracks back against the mast and her serrated shark-teeth close on his shoulder and he tumbles off the catamaran into the chaos.
This time it is not so terrible, but still it burns.
Red Mary drives him down with her weight but the harness pulls him unexpectedly sideways and they split apart. Choking, he pulls himself with good hand and teeth up the rope as she circles below him.
Her fangs catch his bad hand and red and green drifts out into the sea.
With a sudden crystalline beauty the chaos finishes its adaptation to Max and everything is clear and still and the sea no longer burns.
His good hand comes over the side of the deck. He takes a gulp of air. He fumbles for anything that might serve him as a weapon.
Red Mary charges.