There’s a river, and a desert, and a boat, and the river winds its way on through the desert while the boat crawls along it like an ant going up a ribbon. A filthy, brown ribbon. A damn, gray ant.
“Relieve the watch, strike eight bells on time,” the boatswain calls.
“Good luck,” Malaika says.
She passes me the binoculars, and I take my first long look at the horizon. What I see, I might call it nothing, but then nothing’s too fine a word for it: a vast, unending sheet of sand, so perfectly, so unremarkably featureless that, standing as I am but a few feet above the surface of the water, I swear I can see the curvature of the Earth.
“Mind your helm,” I say. This kid can’t keep his heading.
I go out to the deck-edge and make small talk with the lookout to pass the time. After a while, I look down and see a clump of silt drawn up from the riverbed. Caught up in the vortex of our propellers, it billows into something like a jellyfish, and for a moment it’s like watching creation unfold: new life formed from clay, only to be drawn away and torn apart in the tumult of our wake. Creation as a prologue to destruction. Will it ever end?
“This watch is too damn long!” I groan.
On my way back inside, I stop at the chart table and ponder over the name of this place, this choked-up waterway: River of God — or something like that. It’s only a rough translation.
We make ten knots against the current. After a couple hours, I see jet-black smoke on the horizon, rising up in a plume and then dispersing, like a column holding up the sky. I know I’ve been too long in the desert when I have this thought that this — this pillar of soot — is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
“Smoke on the horizon!” I call down below. I try not to sound too giddy.
There’s a clamoring up the ladder; the hatch swings open and shut behind me.
“Where away?” Malaika asks. I edge back, stand shoulder to shoulder with her, and point to it, appearing as no more than a spec without the binoculars. She whistles. “Call the Captain?”
“Is that a question or an order?” I reply.
I sigh and pick up the sound-powered phone. “Captain, deck.”
“Go,” Captain says.
“Ma’am, I think you wanna come up here. Smoke on the horizon.”
“Moving.” She slams down the phone, and then — no kidding — it’s like she flies along the rails. In half a breath she’s there, standing at my side. “What is it?” she asks.
I lean back at the waist and reach out with one hand to the horizon. “Don’t know, ma’am, it’s right over—”
“Got it!” she says. Of course she does. She’s got the really good binos, the ones that can see clear on to forever and tell you what’s on the other side.
“Could be a refuse burn,” Malaika suggests.
“Nah,” Captain says, “that’s diesel — they wouldn’t waste good diesel out here.”
“Maybe a wreck?” I offer.
“Could be,” Captain says — but she doesn’t believe it. “Put someone on the gun mount and double the lookout. Call me when we get there.”
I think of something clever to say, but hold back. My resolution for my second deployment is to try and return home slightly less of an asshole than before.
Captain leaves, time passes, the smoke gets closer. I go out to the deck edge. “Can you see anything?” I ask.
“No, sir,” the lookout says.
The river shore is littered with burning wreckage — from what exactly I cannot tell. The black pillar looms over everything now, and I can only just make out the sun beyond.
Back inside, I take up the nearest phone. “Captain, deck, we’re just about—”
The last word is torn out of me, and I lie out on the deck like a fleck of dirt.
“I’m dying here,” I tell my wife.
“Come sit with me,” she says.
Still, I linger in the doorway, unwilling to go out onto the porch with her. “Honey, I love you,” I tell her, “but I can’t stand the mountains. It’s suffocating, like… being trapped inside a closet infested with trees.”
She looks at me. “Trapped with me?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, you know that’s not what I mean.”
She shakes her head and sighs. “Well, try saying nothing next time. Now come out and sit with me.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “too long in the desert. I promise I’ll do better.”
“It’s not your fault,” Malaika says.
“Huh? I don’t — don’t leave me.”
“I’m not leaving — Captain has the deck.”
The left side of my body stings all over. “I — am I dying?” I ask, almost curious.
“Don’t be silly, Jack,” she says with a nervous chuckle.
I try to look around, but it hurts. “Is Doc here?”
“He’s just outside — lookout got it pretty bad.”
I take a moment to consider. Somehow, there’s only one thing on my mind. “Do you see the smoke?” I ask.
“We’re almost clear.”
“Can you tell me what it looks like?”
“I gotta keep my head down, but it’s black, and billowing against a gray-blue sky.”
Still rising up above it all. I take a deep breath, then a long exhale, and it seems to go on forever.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“What?” my wife asks.
I stand atop the black pillar and look out over the desert. “Nothing… I just never knew how beautiful ‘nothing’ could be.” How it goes on…
Malaika says something in reply, but I can’t quite make out the words. It’s like she’s talking over her shoulder to someone. Then there’s the Captain. “Get something to cover him,” she says, with so much pity in her voice. “He never knew what hit him.”
Chris Rogers is an Iraq War veteran and former naval officer. The happiness of his characters sometimes suffers as a result.