Robert Nowall

A Raft, by Robert Nowall
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A Raft, by Robert Nowall

A RAFT

by

Robert Nowall

This is about a young man with an old idea. Other people had it before him, but that wasn’t important. That he had it when he did, that mattered. Sometimes an idea must wait for the right moment.

The ocean in front of him looked like any other ocean. The bluish-green water rolled in, and lapped against the sand in waves that came every few seconds. Tides were there, right now low tide, and the sand between the current water line and the high tide line looked as smooth and as hard as a concrete sidewalk. Did it matter much if the sky had a distinct greenish tint, or that a few brighter stars were visible even in the bright noon? Even its name wasn’t important.

This beach did not look like it was much walked on. Only the marks the young man had made, from big and straight logs dragged from a stand of trees down to a point just above the high-tide line, marred the smoothness. To the young man, it seemed a pity and a shame, that what a man might do seemed like a desecration.

He piled the long logs together, and lined them up nice and even. Straight and long. Smooth brown bark. It smelled new-cut. They weren’t all a nice even length, but he had a pile of hand tools nearby, and among them were an ax and a hand saw. He could cut them to fit.

He had a good picture of what he wanted in his head. No blueprints, but he didn’t need them. It would be about five meters by four, the logs parallel to the four-meter axis. He didn’t need to be too precise.

And when he finished, and high tide came, he would drag it down to the water and it would float off. Then things would begin to happen.

He shrugged. There was a lot of work to do before it could happen. He crouched in the sand, knelt down next to the log pile.

“Hey, Mister, what’cha doin’?”

He looked up. The voice belonged to a kid, a boy about, what, ten or twelve years old? The kid was brown from the sun, but wore a ragged bathing suit around his hips. that looked almost a part of his skin. The kid had fingers from one hand in his mouth, and an odd expression on his face.

It looked like the kid had been there for some time before he noticed it. What was that expression on the kid’s face? Rapt interest? Or idle curiosity?

The young man hesitated, and wondered whether to just keep quiet, or maybe blow the kid off with a rude, “Go away, don’t bother me.” He sighed. The kid didn’t look like trouble.

“I’m building a raft,” the young man said, and looked back to the raft.

The kid did not speak for a minute or so. He kept the same maybe-puzzled expression on his face, the fingers of his hand still in his mouth. The young man kept in his crouch, and looked at his laid-out logs.

After a while, the kid spoke again. “Mister, what’s a raft?”

“Kid,” the young man said, “shouldn’t you be in school?”

“School starts next week, and I don’t go until then. What’s a raft?”

“What’s a raft?” he repeated, half to himself. He stared at the logs, and let silence fall again.

He pondered the logs. He had enough, he thought. If he had too many, it didn’t matter. If he had too few, he could cut more.

After some time passed, he turned his head to the kid and said, “Why, sonny, a raft is a thing to float on the water. Like that ocean, over there.” He waved his hand towards the ocean behind him, and did not turn to look at it. “You tie a bunch of logs together, push them off into the water, and just float away.”

“But what for?”

He twisted his head and looked the kid over once again. Then he moved his feet, bit by bit, until he faced the kid square on. “Why?” he said. “Because there’s land out there, son.”

“Land?”

“Plenty of land, but no way to get to it unless you use a raft.” He pointed out to sea. “You see that little blur on the horizon there?”

The kid took his fingers out of his mouth, and held his hand up to shade his eyes. He squinted. “Oh, you mean the island?”

“You know the island?”

“My dad says we took a trip there when I was four.”

“When you were---” The man shook his head.. “But you haven’t been there since. Nobody has. But I will. On my raft.”

“But why don’t you take an aircar?”

The young man groaned. He was one of those types who got bothered when so few people around him understood the world around them all---much less what had happened to it. But he also was tired of making explanations. He hesitated over his answer, then said, “It’s no longer possible, kid. There are no aircars.”

“No aircars, mister?”

“You heard me.” He looked out, over to the sea, and remembered all the times he had seen them against the sky, so often that he could not fix in his mind which time had been the last time. Years ago, in any case. “Look, kid,” he said, “broadcast power is gone. No broadcast power, no aircars. It’s as simple as that.”

He turned away from both the sea and the kid, and back to his raft. It was all there and it was time. He reached for one of the coils of strong, thin string-rope and began to tie two logs together at one end. They had to be tied tight together, three or four times across the length of the logs. Some kind of support was needed...maybe he could split one log and tie it to the others...

After he worked at it for several minutes, till he had gotten several loops of string-rope around two logs and knotted it, he looked up, and noticed the kid was still there. He still stared at him. He said, “What’re you looking at?”

“My dad says we’ll have power plants fitted to aircars any day now.”

In an instant he got angry and fed up. “Your dad’s full of it, kid. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

“My dad says---”

“I don’t care what your dad says, kid. Get out of here.”

“But you---”

“Get out of here, I said!” He got up out of his crouch and started to rise, and took one step towards the kid.

The kid turned and ran, without another word. The young man didn’t stand up all the way. He watched him run for a moment, till the kid ran partway up the beach. Then he turned back to his pile of logs, and began to tighten the knot he had made.

#

The raft wasn’t rigid enough. The logs were all tied together, and he had tied four split logs across its length. The vines were as tight as he could get them. But when he climbed up and stood on it, it twisted and gave where he stepped on it.

It wasn’t a loss. Three or four logs strapped across the bottom of the raft, logs a little larger than the ones he had used, and it should be all right. That should make it stiff enough to walk around on it, while it floated on the ocean.

The sun was down. Pitch black except for light cast from his meager beach bonfire. It didn’t drown out the brighter stars or the sliver of light from the crescent form of the largest moon. A couple of days and the moon would be new, the tide would be high, and it would be a good time to go.

Another sad moment washed over him, as he thought of all the lights that would have been lit if broadcast power hadn’t failed. For a moment, it threatened to bring up all the sad things that had happened since then.

He shivered, and tried to concentrate on the raft until it passed. It took for the feeling to fade. It took a flicker of movement, just beyond his fire, to banish it from his thoughts.

He spun to face it---and knew the man who stood there. He looked a lot like the kid yesterday---his father?---but that wasn’t it. He knew him from somewhere, back in the way back and when.

The man shook his head and said, “Frank.”

“Er...ah...” He couldn’t remember a name. His own name sounded strange, like he hadn’t used it for awhile, like it belonged to someone else and he only borrowed it for a time.

“I thought it might be you,” the man said. “Billy told me there was a man on the beach working on a raft.”

“Billy,” Frank said. What was the man’s name? It began with an “S,” he thought...then it came to him. “Stephjen.” He had known him, him and his wife, before things changed. He scratched his head. “Was that your son here this morning? I haven’t seen him since, since...when was that? When he was...four?”

“He’s twelve now.” Stephjen nodded. “I’m a little surprised to see you. This is a fairly isolated stretch of beach, you know.”

“I know.” Frank shrugged. “One reason I came here. What brings you and Billy here?”

“It’s away from the crowds, but close to a power line. It’s comfortable.” He look past Frank, to the unfinished raft. “So, Frank...” he began.

“I’m building a raft.” He kicked the nearest edge of the raft with a light tap of his toes. “It’s been a long time now, and this can’t wait any longer.”

“Do you really think you can reach the East Continent with just a raft, not even a ship or boat?”

“Why not? I’m here, it’s there, and I don’t see any serious barrier.”

Stephjen shook his head and sighed. “Frank, Frank, I just don’t know about you.”

“I’m not trying to do this right now, Stephjen. That island out there---” He shook his head, not as a “no” but as if to clear it. “Sorry. You know the island. You should, you’ve been there.”

“I know it. I used to spend some time out there, me and my family. Before---well, you know.” He looked down, embarrassed to speak of it. “Nobody lives there now. Nobody can get to it.”

“I know that. They say you can’t get there except by air.” He looked out, into the darkness, into the ocean. “Or by sea.”

“Isn’t that kind of risky?”

“I’ll take that chance.”

Stephjen fell quiet just then, and Frank felt know need to speak. He found it hard to share a dream that no one else shares. He found it hard to put that dream into the right words. He had a dream, that nobody shared. He wondered if---but it was best not to think of that. He turned away from the sea, for the moment, and waited for Stephjen.

Stephjen said, “You know, Frank, you’re welcome to spend the night on our couch. It’ll be warmer than spending a night here, and you can clean up as well.”

“No, no,” Frank said, and held his hand up, palms out. “I’m comfortable here. It’s not that cold. I’ll make do.”

“Suit yourself.” Stephjen turned and stepped away from the light of the fire, and disappeared into the dark.

Frank sat down next to the fire. It wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t warm, either. He lay down on the sand on his back, next to the fire, and fell asleep.

#

The fire had turned to a pile of ashes by the next morning. Frank woke at dawn, to get larger logs to cut and strap to his raft. He tied three of them to it. It seemed to make a difference. It had to be tied down tight, enough to keep it secure.

He took a break, and sat on the raft’s edge. He looked down the beach. Stephjen walked towards him. He felt no suprise. He decided to be friends. He waved and shouted, “Stephjen!”

Stephjen waved back but did not reply. Instead, he continued at a steady and measured pace towards the raft, towards Frank. He stopped a few meters short and stood there, his feet sunk into the soft sand.

“Frank,” he said. “I’ve been making a few calls.”

“Oh?” Frank hesitated, then shrugged. “What about?”

“I talked to Binder over in Exer City. You remember Binder, don’t you?”

“I remember Binder.”

“A former pilot? Works on one of the aircar projects now?”

“I said I remember him. I don’t know what he’s been doing lately.” He swung around, and knelt down, knees on the raft but feet in the sand. He tugged on the ropes that held all the logs together. Were they though enough to hold together at sea? Had he used too many logs? Were the ropes wound too tight? Did they make it seem more secure than it was?

“Well,” Stephjen said, “I talked to Binder. He says he’s sure they’ll fit a power plant into an aircar early next year at the latest.”

“Binder’s full of it. Sure, they might put one power plant in an aircar. Maybe two or three aircars. They’ll cut out this part or that, maybe cut off a good deal of shielding, and they’ll fly them, all right.”

“And you’re saying they...what?” Stephjen asked, with a questioning look on his face.

“What I’m saying is that we can never go back to the way things were before broadcast power failed. We were never a manufacturing planet. We haven’t got the tools to make a bunch of power plants small enough to fit into an aircar.” He stopped, started to chuckle, then swallowed it and continued. “We couldn’t fix the transmitters when they failed. We can’t get the parts to make the parts to fix it.”

“Mmm. You have a tendency to preach about things, Frank.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these things, that’s all.” He stood up, brushed some sand off his legs, and faced Stephjen face to face. “The aircar era is dead, Stephjen. Deader than dead. Soon enough, other parts of our civilization will fail, too.” He stopped, and closed his eyes tight, then opened them again. “It’s not just broadcast power. The phones are sure to fail, sooner or later. They’re dependent on orbiting satellites, and we have no way right now to get to them, for repair or replacement. Do you agree?”
“I...concur. But I think---”

“It doesn’t matter what you think. It’s going to happen. Here’s another example. You said you were on a power line, didn’t you?”

“Rright,” Stephjen replied, with enough hesitancy to slur the “r” in it.

“Then you know the problem. You have to be on the line to have electricity. You can’t get broadcast power, it couldn’t be fixed with anything we have here. And there are only a limited number of batteries. They were imported, and when space travel came to a stop we stopped getting them.” He stopped, took a breath, and went on. “I don’t know why they stopped coming. Fifty years ago, the ships---”

“---the ships used to come every two weeks. Then it was every month. Then every six months.” Stephjen sighed. He heard this litany from a lot of people. “Then, years ago now, they stopped coming altogether.”

“Right,” Frank said. “You understand.”

“I understand well enough. But I’ve also heard it all before. Like we exported our agriculture and occasional minerals and never developed the industries to support our growing population.” He sighed again. “Like I told you, I talked to Binder. He’s sure any problem can be overcome.”

“I know. If one man can make something another man can make it, too. But I can’t wait.” He looked out, over the empty sea. “The sea’s here now, and I can’t wait.”

He turned away from Stephjen with vigor, and stepped away from the raft. He stood, and stared out to sea, in silence.

Stephjen stood by, his eyes on Frank, while he shifted his balance from one leg to another. Then, with hesitation, he said, “Er...Frank...Binder wasn’t the only person I talked to last night, you know.”

“Oh?” Frank didn’t look at Stephjen, did not look away from the sea.

“I talked to a couple of friends a ways up the coast.” After a pause, to let it sink in, he said, “You built a raft up there, too.”

“So?” Frank shrugged. He did not turn around. “So I built a raft before this. So I tried before. So what?”

“They say your raft broke up a hundred meters from the shore.”

Frank shrugged again. “It wasn’t that well-constructed.”

“They say you nearly drowned.”

“They say. They say. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” He turned around. “It wasn’t that far, and I can swim.”

Stephjen gave him a cold and hard look. “You’re talking about going out much farther than a hundred meters. You might get kilometers out. Can you swim back from there?”

“I’m prepared to take that chance. It has to be taken. Don’t you see that?”

Stephjen shook his head. “No...no I don’t.”

“You’ve lived on this beach a long time. You’ve never been further out to sea than the distance you can swim back---unless an aircar took you.”

“I concede the point. But it’s semi-meaningless.”

Frank paused for a moment, and dug through his thoughts. “Well, here’s another point to ponder. When was the last time you had cutterfish on your dinner table?”

“Cutterfish?” Stephjen frowned.

“It was never a big export item, but you used to see it in the markets and on the menus all the time. But not any more. It’s only found in deep water. The fishing industry was aircar-based. It died when the aircars died.”

“So then?”

“So the only way to get to the deep waters, if the air is denied to us, is to float over the water.”

“Mmm. I see. You hope to revitalize an old industry.”

“I hope to show people that it’s possible to do this.”

“I see. I never cared for cutterfish that much. ” Stephjen took a step closer, and tapped the raft with his booted toe. “Why a raft?”

“What?”

“Why a raft, and not a boat or a ship?”

“Oh.” Frank shrugged. “I would’ve been delighted to build one of those big sail ships you see in pictures in the old archives. But I don’t know how to build one. I’m sure I know how to build a raft.”

“You might fail again.”

“I failed once. I won’t fail this time.”

“You failed three times,” Stephjen said.

Frank looked a little surprised. Stephjen added, “I made a lot of calls last night.”

“Look, Stephjen,” Frank said, with some serious irritation in his tone, “why do you feel the need to interfere with me? What is it to you what I do?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Stephjen smiled. “But my son did run across you here, and I do live nearby. Call it fate that put me here, Frank, but I’d just as soon my son doesn’t go out some morning exploring tidal pools and accidentally runs across your body.”

“He won’t.” He looked out to sea again, then repeated, “He won’t.”

“You think your chances are that good?”

“The attempt has to be made. All up and down the coast, they know the attempt is being made.”

“By you.”

“Not of significance.”

Stephjen looked away, then looked back, and said, “You know, Frank, I haven’t told you everything I learned last night. I think I know why you’re really doing this.”

Frank put an expression of outrage over his face. “I’ve told you why I’m doing this. It’s something that needs to be done.”

Stephjen coughed and swallowed, then said, “And it’s got nothing to do with Arlene?”

That froze Frank. He froze in place and did not move. He took a sharp, whistled breath and let it out so slow he did not seem to breathe at all.

Stephjen stood back a little, out of reach of any sudden moves. He waited for an answer. He knew it was a matter of time, that he had struck a nerve. They both stood still.

Frank broke the loud silence first. “Arlene?” he asked. His voice cracked.

“Arlene.” Stephjen nodded. “I called a couple of old friends. When your name came up, it was almost always the first thing mentioned. You were here, and Arlene was there.”

“True,” Frank replied. He drew the single syllable of it out longer than normal.

“True,” Stephjen said in a faster tone. “And am I supposed to believe your desire to get a raft out onto the sea might also involve a desire to cross from one continent to another?”

That shook Frank out of his freeze. In a second, he looked normal, nervous but normal. “I need to get this raft ready. It’s nearly done and maybe tomorrow I can float it.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Frank.”

Frank shrugged.

“Okay. Maybe I need to be more precise, more specific. Frank. Are you trying to get across the sea to Arlene?”

Frank shook, with a deep frown on his face, but did not reply. Stephjen could see him shake. He decided to press again. “Is it because you’re here and Arlene is there?”

Still no answer. The shake grew more intense. But Frank did not open his mouth, did not even look towards Stephjen. His focus had returned to the sea, to the horizon.

Stephjen frowned, and knew he had to drop his last bit of information he had gathered. “Frank, I talked to Arlene last night.”

The shake stopped. It looked to Stephjen as if Frank exploded and came back together, too fast for his eyes to follow. He turned and faced Stephjen. “You did?”

“She knows what you’re doing---she knows what you’re trying to do, Frank. She would rather you didn’t do it.”

“I’ve got to. I’ve got to.” Frank looked back to the sea, then to Stephjen again. “When the aircars failed---”

“You were here and Arlene was there. I know.” Stephjen hesitated, then said, “My wife is on the East Continent, Frank, same as yours.”

“She is?” That pulled Frank back to his normal. “How can you stand it?”

“I get by.” Stephjen paused again, then said, “We talk every day on the phone. Then there’s Billy to take care of. My days seem full enough. I get by.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I don’t want to throw my life away on some crazy attempt to cross the sea on a three-by-five raft!” For the first time since he met up with Frank again, Stephjen put some anger in his words.

“Stephjen,” Frank said, “I do not believe I’m doing so. I’ll never believe that. I have carefully thought things out. I believe I have learned from my past mistakes. I believe I have a good chance.”

“To cross the ocean?”

“I’m only going to the island this time. Then I’ll see.”

Stephjen shrugged. Calmness returned to him. “Frank, you never gave me a straight yes-or-no answer to my question.” He paused. “I’d like an answer.”

Frank looked out to sea again. He didn’t shake now and he stood still as a statue. Then he turned back to Stephjen, and said, “Yes. The answer is yes.”

“I thought so.” Stephjen crossed his arms across his chest, and let a faint smile play across his lips.

Frank took two steps closer to Stephjen, the better to look him straight in the eye. He projected calm now, more than before, almost icy calm. “But don’t think because I have one reason, Stephjen, that I have no other reason.’

“How so?” Stephjen met Frank’s gaze and didn’t flinch.

“Everything I’ve said is still valid. We are here, alone, on this planet now. We can’t wait for any ships or any resources they may bring. The sea is a resource, one we’ve ignored until now.”

“Until we have to, you mean.”

“Exactly.” Frank stepped back, but kept Stephjen’s gaze. Stephjen broke it first. Now Stephjen looked at the raft, at the sea, at the horizon, and back to the raft. Then he caught Frank’s eyes again and asked, “When will you launch your raft?”

“Mmm.” Frank’s face puckered with frown-line furrows. After a short time, he said, “Tomorrow morning. It doesn’t need much more. I’ll get a good night’s sleep, right here on the beach, then I’ll haul the raft down to the waterline and wait for the tide to come in. High tide should be...when?”

“About mid-morning,” Stephjen replied.

“Mid-morning, then. I’ll be off.”

“Might work,” Stephjen muttered, as much to himself as to Frank, maybe more.

#

There was a deep cut in the hard sand, in the sand the water washed over day after day and night after night. Frank’s raft dug it out. He had tied a rope to one end, and dragged the whole raft down to the water’s edge.

The water now lifted it, with every wave that came in. A little each time, but not yet enough to lift it off the sand it lay on. Each time, it rose a little, then fell back, just about where it had been. But the height of high tide, the line where the sand stayed churned and chewed up, was much higher. It was only a matter of time before the raft lifted up and floated away for good.

Frank stood on the raft. He had a long thin pole in his hand, fashioned from a tree that must have been thin, hard, and strong. Tied to one end of the pole was a stiff and wide piece of wood, to make a crude paddle. Frank held it in one hand.

He leaned on the pole-oar, one leg stiff and straight and the other at an angle, his free arm against his chest, his hand clenched in a fist. “I think,” he said, “that we can now safely rule out any doubts about this raft being able to float.”

Stephjen stood nearby. He didn’t speak, but just watched. His son Billy stood next to him. Both kept their eyes on Frank and the raft.

“A little more,” Frank said. “When the water is a little higher, I’ll push. Once I get past the waves, it should be easier.”

“This will be more difficult than you think,” Stephjen said. “What about supplies, once you get out in the middle of the ocean?”

Frank looked down, then tapped a canvas bag at his feet with his toes. It was tied down to the raft. “It’ll get me to the island. Once there, I’ll be all right.”

“I wish I could talk you out of this,” Stephjen said. “I wish I could.”

For the first time since Stephjen found Frank on the beach, Frank grinned, a broad grin. “You wish. But you can’t.”

“I can’t,” Stephjen replied.

Another wave crashed on the beach and drifted up to the raft. It lifted a little, and drifted away a couple of meters before it came to rest. “One more, I think,” Frank said, and turned his back to Stephjen. He flipped his pole over so the non-paddle end was point down.

The wave, the one Frank wanted, came and lifted the raft. Frank bent down and stuck the pole in the sand. He pushed, hard, and pushed the raft out onto the water. It slipped down the beach several more meters, then stuck as the water receded.

The next wave lifted the raft again. Frank swung the pole over to a new place, and pushed again. The raft floated out and into the water.

Frank picked up his pole and shoved it down again for another push. Another wave came in, crested, splashed all over Frank and the raft. And then the raft was through. It bobbled up and down on the waves beyond.

Frank stood still on the raft. His eyes gazed out to sea. Then he flipped his pole over and paddled.

Stephjen cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Call me when you get there, Frank!”

Frank grinned again, and waved with one arm and hand. Then he turned away and paddled.

After what seemed like hours but must have been much shorter, Frank turned around, waved once more, then turned away for good.

Stephjen and his son stood on the beach. They watched until Frank and his raft were only a blurry dot too far away to make out fine details. Stephjen seemed lost in thought.

Billy turned to his father and asked, “Dad, have we got any binoculars?”

Stephjen said, “What? Oh, yes, yes. Top drawer of my bedroom dresser. If you want to run and get them...”

Billy ran off before Stephjen finished.

Stephjen hadn’t moved when Billy came back. Billy offered him the binoculars. Stephjen turned them down with a shake of his hands. He kept his eyes on the horizon. Billy looked through the binoculars, and scanned the horizon from one side to another and back. “I don’t see him, Dad,” he said. “Do you see him?”

“No, son,” Stephjen replied, and put his hand on Billy’s shoulder. “He’s gone.”

They stood together a moment. Billy looked through the binoculars again, then lowered them. “Do you think he’ll make it?”

“He might, son,” Stephjen replied. “He just might.”

They waited on the beach until almost sunset, then headed home.

#

Though they waited for weeks for Frank’s phone call, it never came. No one ever heard from him again. Later, when Billy and others built rafts and boats of their own, they searched the island, but no sign of Frank was found.

Maybe he made it, maybe he didn’t. The idea was important.

************************************************************************