Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied.
— Leonard Cohen
Evening, May 14, 2017
Only a few minutes before sunset now. The sea blazed orange. Fire Island rose as a dark line to the north.
“James,” said Ana. “We need to talk.”
The first mate glanced toward the east, where the calculations said God’s boat would soon appear.
“I’ll be quick,” she said. “It’s about the Captain.”
“No,” said James.
“I’m sorry, I promise I’ll be quick, but it’s the end of the world, James, please just hear me out. Simeon thought the Captain was the Comet King. He’d gathered all this evidence. John was…”
“Tomas,” James called, “keep a lookout.” He checked his watch, then turned to Ana. “We have eleven minutes before all of this starts in earnest,” he said, “and in that time I’m going to take you down to the cabin where we can talk properly and we’re going to have a discussion about this.” He motioned Ana down the ladder. Then:
“Listen. Most of the rich bozos who sign on here want to find God for one or another boneheaded reason. But the rest – a fifth? Maybe a tenth? – want to find the Comet King. Every single one of them eventually shouts at the Captain and gives a stirring speech about how he needs to reclaim his throne and lead the nation. The Captain listens patiently, then orders them sent off the ship. This happens four, five times a year? If the Captain is the Comet King, and I don’t have the slightest interest in knowing whether that’s true, then it is always a safe bet that the Comet King knows what he’s doing. He is not one stirring speech and a reminder of his dead wife away from reclaiming all he has lost. He’s here for a reason. Simeon didn’t respect that, so he’s out. If you don’t respect it, you’re out too, no matter how good you are with winds. Do you understand?”
“No buts. If you can fathom the mind of the Comet King, you can talk to him as an equal. Until then…”
Ana sighed. “The world’s falling apart,” she said. “He’s got to do something.”
James glanced at his watch. “It’s time, Ana.”
They climbed back upstairs into the last light of the setting sun. At the very moment it dipped below the horizon, Amoxiel cried “Sail ho!”, and they all turned their heads east to where a solitary purple light shone against the dimming grey sky.
“That’s it!” James shouted. “Let’s go!”
The red sail flapped in the wind. Mark McCarthy traced pentagrams on the orange. Ana spoke the Zephyr Name, called the winds to the yellow. Tomas sang to the green. Father O’Connor prayed before the blue. Amoxiel drank a flask of holy water and the violet sail opened. “Once more to give pursuit upon the sea!” he said joyfully.
The black sail stood silent and alone. Ana tried not to look at it.
Not A Metaphor shot east, like a bullet, like a rocket, like a comet. The sea became glassy and weird. The cracks in the sky seemed to glow with new vigor. Strange scents wafted in on the rushing winds.
Erin Hope stood alone on the bow of the ship. Crane was dead. Azore had forfeit his ticket. She was the only passenger left. She stared into the distance at the purple light that she hoped would mean her salvation, the light of God. Then she retched off the front of the boat.
Faster and faster went Not A Metaphor. The wind became almost unbearable, then stopped entirely as they crossed some magical threshold. The ship shook like a plastic bag in a hurricane. Ana wondered if the autopilot driving them on had thoughts, and if so what it was thinking right now.
But still the light of God grew dimmer and further away.
“This is bullshit!” said Father O’Connor, who kept praying in between expletives. Ana wondered exactly what kind of a priest he was. Apparently the type who would agree to join an expedition to hunt down God if they paid him enough. Probably not Pope material.
“This is the usual,” said James. He’d been through it all before. Sure, this was a special run. They had Ana and the yellow sail for the first time. The autopilot was steering, so James could stand outside and help coordinate the Symphony. And the fall of Uriel’s machine was a wild card. But in the end, James had chased and failed to catch the sacred ship a few dozen times. He expected this to be another such failure, and it bothered him not at all.
Erin Hope left the bow, walked over to the green sail. She was still shaking a little bit; Ana was half-surprised she hadn’t gotten off in New York to pick up some heroin, but who knew? Maybe she really believed. “You say this runs on song?” she asked Tomas. The Mexican nodded.
Then Erin sang. There was something shocking about her voice. Her face was lined with premature wrinkles, her arms were lined with track marks, she looked like some ancient witch who’d been buried a thousand years, but when she sang it was with the voice of America’s pop goddess, sounding a clear note among the winds and darkness. She sang an old Jewish song, Eli, Eli, though God only knew where she learned it. It went “My God, my God, I pray that these things never end. The sand and the sea. The rush of the water. The crash of the heavens. The prayer of the heart.”
The seas surged. The sky seethed with sudden storm-clouds. But the green sail opened wider than they had ever seen before, a great green banner in the twilight, and emerald sparks flashed along the rigging.
Their quarry ceased to recede. But it didn’t get any closer either.
“This is bullshit,” Father O’Connor repeated, in between Confiteors. “Why can’t you guys get the black sail open?”
“Less braying, more praying,” said James, who had taken a quick dislike to the priest.
Ana shot it a quick glance, then upbraided herself. If Simeon was right, this was the end of the world. Why shouldn’t she look at the black sail? She stared straight at the thing. It hurt, the way looking too close at an Escher painting hurt, but worse. What was it? How did it work?
The Comet King, John had said, would stand beneath the black sail and raise his magic sword, and the sail had opened to him alone. So they needed either the Comet King – which if Simeon was right, might actually be a viable plan – or his sword.
But who was the Comet King? He was angelic, and his sword was angelic, but angels powered the violet sail, and no two were alike. If the secret of the black sail was just angels or their artifacts, Amoxiel would have opened it long ago. Think like a kabbalist. Seven sails for the seven sublunary sephirot. The red sail for the material world, that was Malkuth. The orange sail for ritual magic, that could be Netzach. The yellow for kabbalah, that was Yesod, the foundation, the superstructure of the world. The green sail for music, that was beauty, Tiferet. The blue sail for prayer, that was Hod. The violet sail for angels, that was Chesed, righteousness.
That left Gevurah. Severity. God’s goodness dealt out in a form that looks like harshness. The judgment all must fear.
The Comet King’s sword was fearsome. A dangerous weapon. But was it really…
Then Ana thought about what was on the sword.
Something opened in Ana’s mind. New memories. Knowledge she shouldn’t have. A deep loss. She didn’t cry, because time was running short, and she knew how she was going to open the black sail. She told the winds to stay for her, then ran fore, where Mark McCarthy labored beneath the orange sail. “Mr. McCarthy!” she said over the howling winds, holding out her hand. “I need your opal amulet!”
“How did you…,” but something in her face spooked him. He looked at the orange sail, considered his options, and decided it wasn’t worth a fight. He unclasped his necklace and handed it to her.
Ana Thurmond advanced on the black sail, and something was terribly wrong. She wanted to avert her gaze, but she kept looking, even though something was terribly wrong. She reached the final mast, saw the ship’s wake behind her, a wake of multicolored sparks spiralling into the void, but she held on to the mast and didn’t run, even though something was terribly wrong.
“Black mast,” she said. She felt silly talking to it, but she wasn’t sure how else to get it working. It didn’t recognize her like it did the Comet King. Forty-odd years ago, young Jalaketu had stood below Silverthorne and defended the pass against an army of demons. Before the holy water had washed them away, he had faced Thamiel in single combat and drawn blood. Blood like that, she figured, never washed away. It was still on the great sword Sigh. Ready to be used. The final facet of God.
“Black mast, this amulet contains the blood of Malia Ngo. She’s the daughter of Thamiel and Robin West. His blood runs in her veins. Just like on the Comet King’s sword. This is the blood of Thamiel, and I call you to our aid.”
The seventh sail opened, and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
Psalm 107: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.”
This is maybe not true in general. Cruise passengers, for example, mostly see the wonders of a buffet table. But if you were to arrange all your seafarers from least-seeing-the-works-of-the-Lord-and-His-wonders to most-, with cruise passengers on one end and Coleridge characters on the other, the poor crew of Not A Metaphor would be several nautical miles off the right-hand side of the chart.
The seven sails shone in the dusk like the banners of psychedelic armies. The sea and sky dissolved into one another. The sun and moon were both clearly visible, but it was neither day nor night. The bubbles they traced in their wake shot from the end of the ship like fireworks celebrating an apocalypse. They sailed a sea outside the world, and they sailed it really fast.
They started gaining on the blob of purple light.
James shouted commands at the crew with military efficiency, but Ana could see fear in his face. He had been happy, she realized, living quietly at sea, talking about hunting God. Actually catching Him hadn’t been part of his plans, and beneath the well-practiced orders she could sense his reluctance.
Erin wouldn’t stop singing. It was that same song, Eli, Eli, and she was going at it like a madwoman. Green sparks flew out of her mouth with each word, but it didn’t even seem to faze her. Ana remembered the rush when she had first called the winds to the yellow sail. She wondered if it was better or worse than heroin.
Amoxiel was talking to himself almost too quickly for her to make out. She strained to hear him over the din, and caught the phrase “Sir Francis Drake, the Tudors, Duke of York”. Enochian. The language of angels. He was so far gone he couldn’t even ramble in English anymore.
Tomas was at the bow, holding James’ binoculars and trying to make out features of the purple speck ahead of them. Ana delicately lay the amulet on the ground before the black mast, then headed fore to join him.
“Do you see anything?” she asked.
He handed her the binoculars.
They’d always said that the boat of Metatron was royal purple with golden sails, and she could sort of see it. A purple splotch, and golden blobs above it. But the shape was wrong. Too squat. Too round. The sails were too short. She strained to see better, then gave up, rubbed her eyes, and handed the binoculars back to Tomas. He placed the cord around his neck and let them dangle, just staring out ahead of them. Even with the naked eye, they could see the purple ship making weird zigs and zags that shouldn’t have been possible.
The sky looked like a hurricane had taken LSD. The sea looked like a coral reef had read Lovecraft. The sails were too bright to stare at directly, and the deck was starting to bubble or maybe crawl. Erin still sung Eli, Eli with demented ferocity amidships.
The boat in front of them began to take on more features. The purple deck at first seemed formless, then revealed fissures like gigantic scales. The golden sails had no masts, but stuck up ridged and angular like huge fins.
Ana and Tomas figured it out at the same time.
“That’s not a ship at all!” Ana cried.
“It’s the Leviathan!” Tom said superficially.
Erin heard the shout, stared at the huge bulk before her, and yelled at James. “The harpoon, man! Get the harpoon!”
The first time I saw Ana was on a ladder outside a pawn shop. But the first time I really felt Ana – heard her in her element and knew her mind – was around the dinner table in Ithaca, listening to her read the Book of Job. I remember the chill that came over me as she read the exquisite poetry describing Leviathan, the monster with whose glories God terrified Job:
His eyes are like the eyelids of the morning
Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.
In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him.
The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
His heart is as firm as a stone; yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.
When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid: by reason of breakings they purify themselves.
The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee: slingstones are turned with him into stubble.
Darts are counted as stubble: he laugheth at the shaking of a spear
So no spears, no darts, no habergeon (whatever that is), no iron, no arrows, no slingshots, a second reminder about the darts, and a second reminder about the spears.
But nothing about harpoons.
James was not happy. He stared at the harpoon in obvious discomfort. Harpooning the Leviathan seemed like the worst idea. But they were a business outfit. They had made a promise. If we find God, they’d said, we’ll bring you to Him. If God was on a sea monster, then there was only one way to do that.
But the most important reason to use the harpoon was the same reason people climbed Everest: because it was there. If the Comet King had a harpoon on his yacht, it was because he expected to need it. If James refused to shoot, then it would be obvious to the world what was now obvious to Ana: that the whole thing had been intended as theater and that none of them had had any intention of winning the chase.
“Amoxiel!” James called the angel, and the angel flew to him. “You’re our expert on this kind of stuff. What’s your assessment?”
“Earl of Leicester religious settlement Westminster Abbey,” said Amoxiel. It wasn’t entirely clear where his mind was, and it wasn’t entirely clear where the ship was, but it seemed pretty certain that the two weren’t the same place.
“You would have to be a goddamn idiot,” said Father O’Connor. The sails were pretty much self-sustaining now. Maybe the crew could stop them if they wanted to, maybe not. O’Connor had stopped praying and joined the growing debate by the harpoon stand.
“What about the Captain?” asked Mark. “Where is he? Of all the times not to be on deck…we should get the Captain and make him decide.”
“The Captain is not to be disturbed for any reason,” said James, “and that means any reason.”
He looked at the Leviathan. The monster was almost entirely submerged. It was impossible to tell how big it was. Rabbi Johanan bar Nafcha said that he had once been out at sea and seen a fish three hundred miles long. Upon the fish’s head was written the sentence “I am one of the meanest creatures that inhabit the sea, I am three hundred miles in length, and today I will enter into the jaws of the Leviathan.” This story raises way more questions than it answers, like who had enough waterproof ink in 200 AD to write a three hundred mile long message on a fish, but if it was to be taken seriously the Leviathan was really, really big.
On the other hand, James was a military man, and he had backed himself into a corner, and now he had to do his duty. “Everyone hold on,” he said. “We’re doing this.”
He aimed the harpoon and fired.
The thing that came out the other end was neither spear nor dart nor arrow. I don’t know what a habergeon is, but I doubt it was that either. It looked more like a meteor, a seething projectile of light, trailing a shining silver thread behind it. The weapon zipped through the boiling air, leaving a violent purple linear afterglow, then struck the Leviathan right on its back.
The line gave a brutal jerk, and the ship plunged forward like a maniac water-skiing behind a rocketship. Murderous pulling feelings in dimensions not quite visible. The silver thread looked too thin to support a falling leaf, but somehow it held.
“Structural integrity down to NaN percent,” said a voice. It was the ship.
“You can talk outside of the bridge?”
“Yes. Structural integrity down to NaN percent,” the ship repeated.
“Um. Is there a device on that harpoon to help us reel the thing in?” James sounded like he was hoping there wasn’t.
“Yes, this is the primary purpose of the ship’s power supply.”
“I thought going fast was the – ”
“Yes, that is the secondary purpose.”
“Well, uh, reel away.”
The ship lurched more. “Structural integrity now down to NaN percent,” said the pleasant synthetic voice.
“Well, uh, tell me if it gets any lower than that,” said James. He wrung his hands.
“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?” asked Ana, that night at the dinner table. “Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a thorn?”
Erica idly brushed her leg against Eli Foss’ under the table.
“Will he make many supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee?”
Bill Dodd was trying to think of a suitably witty way to make fun of the passage.
“Wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? WILT THOU PLAY WITH HIM AS WITH A BIRD?”
“Sheesh,” said Ally Hu, who was reading ahead. “God is so obsessed with this whole Leviathan thing. First He is talking about the earth and the stars and the clouds, and then He decides no, I’ll just drop everything and focus on Leviathan for three chapters.”
“You know,” said Bill Dodd, “what is Leviathan, anyway? Like a giant whale or something, right? So God is saying we need to be able to make whales submit to us and serve us and dance for us and stuff? Cause, I’ve been to Sea World. We have totally done that.”
“Leviathan is a giant sea dinosaur thing,” said Zoe Farr. “Like a pleiosaur. Look, it’s in the next chapter. It says he has scales and a strong neck.”
“And you don’t think he really existed, we’d Jurassic Park the sucker?” asked Bill Dodd.
“It also says he breathes fire,” said Eli Foss.
“So,” proposed Erica, “if we can find a fire-breathing whale with scales and a neck, and we bring it to Sea World, then we win the Bible?”
“What I think my esteemed cousin meant,” Ana had said, “is that God argues here that we’re too weak and ignorant to be worthy to know these things. But then the question becomes – exactly how smart do we have to be to deserve an answer? Now that we can, as Bill puts it, send lightning through the sky, now that we can capture whales and make them do tricks for us, does that mean we have a right to ask God for an explanation? Discuss!”
“Where is Metatron?” asked Erin, that final night on the Not A Metaphor. “Is he riding Leviathan? Is he in his belly? Will he come out to meet us once we’re close enough?”
“Lady,” said James. “We don’t know any more than you do. We’ll…all find out soon enough.”
Amoxiel gibbered softly. For some reason Erin started to cry. James and Father O’Connor got into some argument, and Mark McCarthy wouldn’t stop drawing pentagrams around everything. Ana realized she was shaking. She very deliberately extricated herself from the assembly around the harpoon and went midship to the yellow sail. The yellow sail was her safe place, she told herself, as swirling stars sputtered overhead.
When she was very young, she read the Book of Job for the first time and was so confused that she had resolved to study theodicy for the rest of her life. Here she was, at the end of the world, a nationally recognized expert, and she had to admit it made no more sense to her than it had the first time around. Could she draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Empirically, yes. So what? Erica had asked exactly the right question. So if you can defeat a really big whale, you win the Bible? Why? Why had God said so in Job, and why had the Comet King himself been so certain it was true that he’d built the world’s fastest ship and the world’s most fabulous harpoon? She started going over the Book of Job again in her mind, line by line. Job suffers. Job complains. Job’s friends tell him everything happens for a reason. Job complains more. God arrives in a whirlwind. God asks if Job can defeat the Leviathan. Job has to admit he cannot, and therefore he does not deserve to know the secret order of the world. God accepts his apology and gives him free things. Not the most satisfying narrative.
Think like a kabbalist.
She thought with all her strength, and with strength beyond her own. She felt oppressed by a terrible cleverness and a wild rebellion. Finally she came to a decision.
“I’ll be gone for just a moment,” she told James. “The yellow sail knows what to do. If you need me, come get me.”
The first mate’s eyes didn’t leave the Leviathan, but he nodded.
Ana climbed belowdecks and knocked on the door to the Captain’s quarters.