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An excerpt from

What Matters

David Skynner

He stood, he thought with some justification, on the cusp of the apocalypse and it flitted through his mind that four horsemen calling forth this destruction would not seem out of place in the current maelstrom.

His first and most confusing thought, was that the chiaroscuro outline he saw before him now, was the carcass of some great beast, its vast skeleton rendered of flesh by time and the inevitable corruption of decay. His confusion lay in the knowledge that the only creature that might grow a rib cage of such immense size was one of the great whales, but their home, the sea, was many hundreds of miles from where he knelt, across a desert of such shifting hostility that nothing could exist there and he knew of no one who had ever survived a crossing.

It had certainly not been there a moment earlier as the earth threw him to his knees. The earthquake had, though brief, been intense and violent. He could hear boulders still tumbling, crashing down the hillside nearby and as the ground had heaved around him he had glimpsed an image of dark semi circular beams being ejected with great force from the ground. He saw them now, narrowing at the point nearest him and curving elegantly up and out in ordered rows that arched towards the sky – the weighty spine still all but buried in the sand. Before he could fully comprehend this vision though, the sight was obliterated once more by the desert wind – a tempest that was stripping him gradually of his skin.

He endured for a few more moments, peering, hoping for a further glimpse, but his eyes were streaming, useless and blind. Grit clogged his nose and sand marched ever deeper into his ear canals. Incapable of any further forward movement, he crouched in the lee of a sandstone cliff, carved into catenary curves by centuries of wind such as this, pressed himself into its glassy smoothness and wrapping his cloak around himself, pulled the sides together until they formed a seal that provided a small but welcome solace from the wind.

He remained like that for over an hour, wondering what it might be that he had seen, when as suddenly as it had started the sandstorm fell silent and he rose and went to investigate.

A dusty haze remained, but it was clearing as he approached and the mammoth shape gradually resolved and gave up its animal form. When he finally stood beside it, shielding his eyes from the glare that was returning to scorch the ground and looked up at the ribs arcing high over him, when he reached out to confirm what his eyes told him, but his mind could not accept, when he touched and ran his fingers gently across the gnarled surface of the wood, he knew that what he had found was almost as strange as if he had found the remains of a whale several hundreds miles from the sea.

What stood slowly decaying in front of him, absurd, impossible and mocking his denial with its absolute reality, was undoubtedly the remains of a large wooden boat.

A little over an hour before, David had been preparing himself to accept his end. Lost in the desert with the last of his water gone, he had known that his imminent death was now all but inevitable. He had seen the sandstorm develop and sweep towards him like a colossal tsunami and had felt oddly gratified that the elements seemed willing to hasten this end, when they had previously appeared to conspire to prolong and extend his suffering.

Now, he marveled at this miracle as he walked slowly round the structure, gazing in awe at its strangeness. The hull must once have been nearly sixty feet long. Its planks, long since desiccated, had crumbled, but the superstructure, keel and ribs were of such a thickness that they were still largely intact and he now stepped between them into the belly of the beast. Its mast had fallen, but still lay within and as he paced the length from prow to stern along the line of the keel, he caressed its width and came to feel, suddenly, an affinity, as if encountering a friend from childhood whose appearance is so much changed that they are not immediately recognised.

David stopped and stood in the middle of the ruin. Here was visible the possible cause of its demise. Below his feet he could see the vast timber keel was shattered and a substantially greater gap between the evenly spaced ribs betrayed the fact that this vessel had met with a force sufficient to break it in two. He blinked, incapable of admitting what his thoughts were suggesting, then allowed his instinct to plainly speak the words that he sensed were true, but could not in any way begin to explain. It was his insanity surely? The final nail in his coffin and the proof if any were still needed that God does first make mad those he wishes to destroy. But also, the impossible hope that seized his heart in that moment and which he grasped with all the desperation of the drowning, was a salvation to him; a brilliant flare igniting and soaring upwards, a guide to rescuers, a comfort to those in peril and to him, as proof positive of the improbable touch of God upon the world.

There was no explaining it, but still he knew this was a sign and the deliverance that he had long ago given up on. For though a mere shadow of what it had once been, he was sure he knew this vessel. As he once again placed his hand on the fallen mast, he knew with absolute certainty that he had once been a passenger on this ship and many long years earlier, had been a witness to her sinking broken beneath the waves.

There was one way he could be sure, one way he could know that he was not lost to insanity. David dropped to his knees and began shovelling away the sand from around the broken beam that formed the keel of the ship. The sun had grown intense now and he pulled his cloak up to cover his head, but within a few moments he was drenched with his own sweat. He continued to dig for close to an hour and was several feet down in the sand before he managed to uncover the base of the keel. It had been formed from one entire tree and was over six feet square, a vast and implacable piece of hardwood strengthened and protected by an iron base that had been snapped cleanly in half below the broken timber. It was in a small cavity where the iron had been bent away that he found what he was searching for. At first he couldn't extract it, then after digging at the wood around it with his knife for a few moments, he managed to lever out the object of his search. It was heavy, about eight inches long, oval in shape and narrowed to a blunt point. It was smooth as glass, a creamy yellow in colour and was unquestionably the medium commonly used by sailors of old for scrimshaw, the tooth of an adult sperm whale.

He slumped down on his haunches to examine his find, protected from the sun’s heat by the slightly moist sand and the depth of the hole. It was obviously completely impossible that a boat he had watched sink into the blue waters off the coast, across a terrible desert, over twenty years ago should have somehow found itself entombed in the earth here. There was no power that could have achieved this. It could not be. But despite this, the object he cupped in his hands told a different story and as he turned this twist in his story over, again and again in his mind, examining every facet, every possibility from all angles, he kept coming back to the same conclusion:

For this ship to have found its way here was not possible and for it to have been regurgitated from the ground just as he was wandering alone in this particular piece of a vast, unexplored desert, was a coincidence beyond comprehension. So it had to have some meaning. Nothing else meant any sense. This was an act of the Gods, not that he really believed in any of that mumbo jumbo, not any more, but the occurrence was so incomprehensibly extreme, that it screamed ’divine intervention’. There had to be something of particular and personal meaning here and it was that which he was sure he needed to divine.