MASTERWORKS: The Raft of the Medusa
End times are upon us! For the past several months, Simon Jacobs has been developing MASTERWORKS: a recurring series of flash fiction pieces in which the characters reenact famous works of art. Our mischievous heroes have dabbled in witchcraft, voyeurism, and papier-mâché all to bring to life great works of art spanning time and genre.
“Please,” your father says once we’re aboard, wrapping my hand over his. “Call me Hugh. Or, hey, call me Captain de Chaumareys.” When I withdraw, the palm of my left hand is indented with the shapes of his rings: a hexagon with a diamond within it, an egg, and a five-pointed star. The surname—not yours—rattles around my head but doesn’t strike anything. The final floor of the building behind us is finally consumed by the storm. The boat rises with it. In time, the remaining islands vanish too. The world flattens. In the end, we took nothing but ourselves with us. I call him Hugh.
Our space on the boat is a ten-foot compartment below deck, opposite your father’s post and the captain’s quarters on the other end. The room is sized for stowaways; I sense that there are levels below us eating up the space, hidden chambers we don’t have access to. Within, there’s a straw-stuffed twin mattress and a bassinet for Morning that’s crafted with obvious care—the same attention I saw you bring to your twig constructions, the branches tied tight and intricate—but inside it’s spiny and unfinished; the sharp ends of all the little shoots poke into the hold like a child-sized iron maiden. I insulate the basket with three layers of thick, scratchy blankets before I introduce Morning to it—there’s an element of dangerous absentmindedness to the bassinet, to its superficiality, the idea of the thing over the use of the thing itself.
You are immediately cowed and deferential in the presence of your father, prone to small and technical arguments. I don’t know what this new step means, what we agreed to automatically by coming aboard, nor where he intends to take us. I get no answers, and I suspect it’s because you don’t have any. The storm continues on and off; there are calm periods where it only rains, when the clouds relent enough to push out the horizon and reveal the endless breadth of the waters, that with each hour we likely grow more and more remote.
At times, I peer over the deck railing (properly more of a carved banister) and watch the cities pass below us; ghosted in the waters I see the tops of buildings swallowed by the rain, arrayed at different depths like mismatched stairs leading up, down, across to nowhere, into drowned cities of myth—Ys, Atlantis—the civilizations said to exist when the unexplored half of the globe was believed to be only water. But there ended up to be land there, and then cities.
I visit your father on his perch during one of the stormy periods, where he remains, always, spinning the pegged wheel this way and that. I’m not convinced that it’s connected to a rudder. I wave to summon his attention. He lifts his chin at my presence. “Hugh, are there other cities left?”
He pretends not to hear me over the wind and rain. He shakes his head once—come again?—and before I can repeat it, he motions expansively before him, his eyes looking through me. “You know,” he shouts, “I can’t remember for the life of me if it was Turner or Vernet who tied himself to the mast of a ship during a thunderstorm so he could accurately capture the full sensory experience in his paintings. Of course, Victorians in their way were more tolerant of these eccentricities. They respected painters more than we do nowadays.” The word “eccentricities” is ripped apart by the wind—it sounds like “ex-en-tis”—but I reconstitute it, I have no doubt of the word.
“Where are you taking us?”
“I’ve said it a thousand times,” he says, though he hasn’t said it any, not to my knowledge. The boat rocks to the left, and I brace myself against the arm of his throne; I try to remember where you are, if I can trust you to steady Morning in the cabin, to pick him up and calm him. “There’s nothing for you to worry about. I’m steering us home.” He offers a cursory rightward twirl of the wheel.
“Where exactly is that? Ohio?”
“There are a lot of names for it,” he says. “Avalon, Elyria, Shambhala, Gahanna, Paradiso—you find them, or they find you.”
I locate you below deck in our chamber, seated on the mattress, absently rocking the bassinet with one hand while the baby cries, your attention lost to a compass held in the other. “I’m trying to figure it out,” you say, “but this compass has five directions.”
I pick Morning up—he is still a human of impulses and instinct, mostly; he doesn’t yet know the specifics of what he needs, only when it’s given to him or taken away. “If this boat is going to get anywhere,” I say, “we have to do it ourselves.” You furrow your eyebrows at the compass, at my suggestion. “I don’t think your dad knows what he’s doing. He won’t tell me where he’s taking us.”
Your response is that of being backed into a corner, refusing to interrogate what seems so obviously amiss, anger at your own confusion. “He found us, didn’t he? Do you honestly think we would have made it out of that building on our own? We’d be dead if it weren’t for him.”
“That doesn’t mean we have to commit to dying now.”
You hurl the brass compass across the room, where it doesn’t even offer the satisfaction of smashing. It is the most solid thing on this ship.
A fitful night passes in which the waters soften—it feels like we’re more adrift now than ever, that we’ve reached a place the waves don’t even touch. The rain lightens.
I leave you in the cabin the next day and emerge onto the deck. Your father is yet rooted at the helm. I have a vague idea to find where he’s kept the food he brought aboard, but I don’t want to ask him for it; I don’t want to be riddled and suspect that the stores aren’t there, that they never have been. I make my way around the perimeter of the deck, looking for a hatch, a burlap sack, some entrée into the boat’s underworks, anything, aware of your father’s ever-watchful eye. I pause occasionally at the railing to stretch my arms or pretend to examine something—an elaborate chimeric sculpture, the lonely rowboat. I’ll look out at the horizon and convince myself I see something there. The rain has let up into a sprinkle. I feel it on my neck and conflate it for the prickle of observation; they are the same thing, just atmospheric disturbance.
I zigzag slowly across the deck, and when I’m directly below your father’s post, I haul the door to the captain’s quarters open with both hands, steal inside, and pull it quietly shut behind me.
A short set of steps leads down into a cluttered cabin lit by yellowing lamps. There’s a low table, a bunk in the corner. A dim painting dominates the wall across from the steps. The objects arrayed around the room are all squarely in the Realm of the Captain: an astrolabe, a telescope, a set of heavy tomes with the titles rubbed off their spines, a stuffed bird. I poke through a collection of maps on the table; they’re roadmaps of different states—Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana—like you’d pick up from the automobile club before a road trip, maps that mean nothing in this context, that are just props. The futility of our mission falls over me like a blanket, and my eyes rise to the enormous painting on the wall in the faulty light, which looks like it was built specifically to contain it.
It takes a second for me to take the whole thing in, and then I recognize it instantly: Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, the mammoth eighteenth-century French rendition of one of the most disastrous boating accidents of all time: the Medusa—with a crew of four hundred—ran aground a hundred miles off-course, and by the time the raftful of crazed, starved survivors was discovered thirteen days later, only fifteen were left alive. The other 385 were left to vivid public imagination: drowned, killed by other survivors, left behind, or eaten. Géricault’s painting depicts the moment when one of the survivors sees a distant ship on the horizon and climbs to the top of the heap to flag it down, the others gone to waste and dying around him. I remember reading about Géricault’s obsessive visits to French hospitals to study dead flesh, the purloined limbs he kept for weeks in his studio to watch their decay, his painstaking scale model of the cobbled-together raft. The painting is an ode to death, a shrine to failure in the name of Romance—and, finally, the name by which your father jokingly introduced himself strikes its referent: de Chaumareys, the disgraced captain of the Medusa, whose incompetence and lack of experience caused the disaster, foretold its doom. Around me, the hull of the boat creaks like a coffin. I realize that every brushstroke of this painting, of any painting we’ve done, each string in the orchestra, every choral leap and accomplished chord, every perfectly sinuous human form—all of it—they were each of them a flexing muscle, a lineage of falsified tragedy, wounded pride, and shored-up ego: They were your stories. They were his stories.
A spear of light opens in the center of the painting, and for a moment I think that it’s combusting, that I’ve managed to will it into flames, until I hear your voice from behind me: “What are you doing down here?”
You’re a silhouette moving down the stairs. The air is close in the cabin, stifling. “I’m learning about your father’s fixations,” I say. “What are you doing down here?”
“Hey. I was looking for you. What’s wrong?”
“Have you seen any of this?” I brandish a map of Kentucky, wave my hands at the painting. “It’s insane. It doesn’t make any sense. What is he planning?”
You rub your eyes like this is a conversation we’ve had too many times, the air of a haughty second-in-command, as if the master plan is too complicated for me to understand. I picture your father’s eyes behind yours, inscrutably on the horizon, leveling me into a static part of the background, a prop. I instinctively step back.
“Hey”—that word again, that casual, pacifying word, that acknowledgment and scold. You reach behind you and when your hand returns it’s holding a glinting object up to me: one of my Mason jars half-filled with dirt, a tiny green bud just breaking the surface. “Look what I rescued for us,” you say, your face wide with delight, with broad, sloppy hope. “To start over. To raise between us.”
“You”—my mind cycles for the precise word, finds it—“you idiot. Do you even know where Morning is?”
Your face crumples like a half-dried papier-mâché head after the balloon is popped prematurely. “I think he’s with Dad? But—”
I push you out of the way, making for the stairs. I hear the sound of glass breaking in my wake. The sunlight on the deck briefly blares out my vision—suddenly the sky is bright blue and cloudless, everything is bleached dry and ossified, like bone, as if I’ve been underground for years. I turn and climb the stairs behind me to the pulpit where your father sits, the bassinet next to him, which he rocks idly, his eyes on the water. When he sees me he motions me over and says, “Your child has a touch of El Greco to him.” He lifts one of Morning’s hands. “Note the long fingers. Of course, most figures in the Cretan’s work also had somewhat elongated torsos, only really achievable through a long period of malnourishment, but there’s an innateness of body shape required; we’d have to see how he grows. Unless,” he laughs, an experimental laugh, “you let him go without for a few days.”
I lift Morning from the bassinet, swaddled in a pale orange fabric I did not provide for him, that comes from a sixteenth-century palette—the hospital onesie is gone—and I descend the stairs, not looking back. At the edge of the deck, I begin to unravel the ropes that hold the rowboat in place, the boat’s single emergency provision, scarcely large enough for two. Someone was always meant to be left behind. Morning stirs in my arms. In the periphery, I see your father rise from his throne. I’m already sweating in the sun, like fingers on my scalp, crawling down my forehead. I hear the door to the captain’s quarters bang open. The front half of the rowboat dips forward as the rope disengages, and I realize that I’ve got the order wrong. I throw one leg over the railing and topple backwards into the boat, holding the baby to my chest. I land on my back between the two seats, and the loosened rope slips off completely. The front of the boat drops, dangling from the side of the hull, banging against it, and me within it. I grab the bench to keep from falling, and I reach for the remaining rope coiled around the knob on the railing. You appear behind it; you place your hand over mine and I see it’s stained with dirt. I work my fingers around the rope beneath your palm and pull it loose, and I recognize that there’s a part of you that resists grabbing me harder, that withholds applying this pressure, that realizes we have arrived at this end. I imagine you below deck, in the dark, frantically shoving dirt from the floor into the broken Mason jar, the bud vanished in the mess, hoping desperately that when you emerged into the light it would be remedied, you would have captured it rightly after all. When your father appears beside you, on the deck, a shiver goes through me at the match of your profiles, your face in his literal shadow, and in the spike of his sudden presence you apply the pressure you hadn’t before, you wrap your gritty fingers around my wrist. I wrench the last loop of rope free and break away from your grip. You recoil like a snake. There’s a second of weightlessness and then the rowboat crashes into the water. My breath is deep and frightened, my arm locked around Morning. I sit up, draw the paddle from the bottom of the boat and dig it into the water and push off. The rowboat spins and points perpendicular to your father’s. You yell something behind me, but my ears are pounding and I can’t make it out. I lift the paddle to the other side and push again, propelling the boat forward. Morning reaches out from my lap, pulling at air. I continue the motion over and over, without pausing, shooting off into the erratic depths, moving in a long radial line, further and further away, off of your canvas and into my own.
Only when I’m totally sapped of energy do I stop paddling long enough to catch my breath and look back: Your father’s ship is small and distant behind me—it seems to float motionless and hesitant, robbed of whatever doomed directional sense it once had, of its will to move at all. I turn back to the journey at hand. I push myself ever forward.
Sometime later, as the sun falls away, my paddle dips into the water and drags against solid ground; the boat grinds unexpectedly to a halt. I look over the edge and see brick below the surface, a narrow ledge, and just to the left of it, a dark rectangular plot. Through the rippling water, I see that it was once a garden, the plantings now loose from the ground or hanging by their roots, floating sprawled underwater, their leaves and fruits drifting like seaweed. I fashion a sling for Morning, and once I’ve nestled him within it he turns immediately to look out, to take the world in anew. He reaches for the forms visible below the water, his fingers grasping in air as if testing their shape. He makes nonsense sounds, primitive language; he gives them their names. I step out of the boat and find that the water only goes to my ankles, that I can walk on the brick beneath, one trudging step at a time. Before me, twenty paces ahead, a creature trots along the ledge as if on the surface of the water itself, leading the way: If it is Peter, or one of the other saints, I can’t tell at this distance. Beyond him, rising over the horizon, past the glimmering fields of water, in the dusty pink light of evening I see the dim outlines of buildings pulling up, of somewhere else standing. It is like no work of art I’ve ever seen.