The Oyster Singer

A Novel

By Larry Savadove

6" x 9"
494 pp.

ISBN 1-59322-009-X

Excerpt from The Oyster Singer

© 2004 Larry Savadove. All rights reserved.

“Wind’s up,” said Pugh. Lum swung his head to; the boats’ reflections were in corduroy...ripples! Mose had his nose up, one hand waving gently. “Ought to set right, north by east.” All at once the dock was full of people, activity, shouts, as if a freeze-frame had been released. The tiny boats wriggled on their tethers. People popped up and down with ropes, buckets, ribbons, flasks. Delaney and Kleister stood in the midst of the hubbub in their whites, like two buoys, bobbing slightly but in place. Lum noticed some people he didn’t recognize.

“Sports writers,” said Dick Flence, “Didn’t I tell ya? This’ll be big, all right. Coverage, that’s what we got.” Delaney kept waving them off, like greenhead flies. They settled on Mose. Mose started up with a version of the sailing lectures he’d given the yacht club kids Delaney had enlisted to fill the line. They had paid mind for about five minutes, then decided the sneakboxes weren’t any different than the Sunfishes they’d all learned to sail on just after they’d learned to walk and jumped in them and scooted around the lagoon inside the breakwater, seeing how close they could cut each others’ wakes.

The writers paid somewhat more attention but wanted to know how fast the things went, who had the record, where the other tournaments were. When they heard this was a first some of them put their pads away and shrugged, but some raised eyebrows and asked better questions about size and dimension and style. When Mose told them it was a 150-year-old design they got out their cameras. “See, that’s good,” said Dick Flence.

Kleister had arranged a press launch to trail the racers. Ging was on the committee boat, with Delaney, that would moor by the buoy that marked the turn to see that nobody shaved the inside. Kleister walked down the dock handing out course charts. The yacht club kids — yachties, Lum had come to think of them — took a quick look and tossed them into the bottoms of their boats. The Mud City contingent — clammers and crabbers and fishing guides — held them up and examined them closely, tracing lines with their fingers, but with little idea of what they meant.

Mose took one up, then pointed. “Out to the end of Mallard Island, then due south to North Sedge, around it to the marker buoy, then dip below to the Thoroughfare and on in.” Everybody nodded and threw their charts into the bottoms of their boats.

It was to be a cold start instead of a running start, that is, everybody untie, up sails and off at the gun instead of trying to cross an invisible stripe in the water under sail more or less in unison. The lagoon wasn’t wide enough for the two dozen boats to run broadside and the mouth was too close to give enough time for any separation before they got there. Mose had foreseen a logjam with his precious boats splintering one another in their attempts to squeeze through. Delaney agreed; he thought the lack of experience of the mudders, as he had come to think of them, would bollix up the race before it got fairly started.

A calm settled on the crowd. The wind was now as steady as a tide and made humming noises in the ropes, like droning. The little boats pulled at their restraints. The wind-ribbons streamed out, validating Mose’s call — north by east. Kleister rolled out the starting gun, a nine-inch miniature cannon that looked shrunk down from some Civil War battlefield. He called for attention, but he needn’t have. Hands were on the ropes, eyes on the gun, ears tuned to nothing else. A gull dropped from the roof of the clubhouse and almost precipitated a false start by two of the close-in boats but they recovered quickly and the gull cawed its way out over the waiting water.
The shot, when it came, was so loud Lum first thought it was something else, but the burst of activity around him sent him into automatic action. He slipped the tether, hauled up the sail, the thought of whether he was pulling on a sheet or a halyard escaping him for the moment but whichever it was, the sail obediently rose, snapped in the breeze, swelled and filled like a chorus, and the hull nosed into the water for a moment, then sprang up and pushed ahead as if it were racing the sail. Lum grabbed the halyard — or was it the sheet?— with one hand and the tiller with the other and squinted ahead.

The yachties had gotten off to quick starts and their bulges of white sails formed a line in front of him as if a cloud bank has settled onto the bay. The yacht club had declined Billy Byrd’s offer of Tyvek with a barely hidden shudder and opted to adapt such bits of sail they had, cut down from Comets and Lightnings, and Sunfish — a variety of shapes but all the same nautical white. The Mud City boats were in a staggered line behind, their denim, plaid, patchwork, Tyvek, mufti sails giving them an even more scattered look. When these had gone up, there had been a cheer from the press boat and now the reporters all had cameras out, getting in each others way as they tried to capture the display. Glancing at the blooms of sail on either side of him, Lum thought it must look more like a circus than a race.

The white boats skewed around the arm of the breakwater and spewed into the bay in tight formation. The muftis tumbled out, some shooting straight on before realizing the turn, others making it too quickly and then having to haul around to keep from being blown back onto the breakwater. They all made it, but now the field — could you call it a field even if it was on the water, Lum wondered — was a postcard-perfect line of white, billowing sails in front, herded by the wind like so many fleet sheep, and a lagging, straggling gaggle of colored fluff blowing along behind.

Lum settled into place, the place he’d learned where he was a part of the boat. The tiller felt as natural in his hand as a spoon. He played out the rope — the sheet, he remembered now — to set the sail at its best angle to the wind; he could feel it, he realized. Because they were running full before the wind, he pulled up the centerboard and felt the tiny craft lift and skim over the water. It was a good wind now, raising small whitecaps in the bay, but he knew he could handle it; it was his. He’d never sailed before Mose got him into one of these things. He’d poled and paddled and rowed and chugged over waters deep and shallow, broad and banked, chopped and flat. He been afloat in a tabletop sea and tossed between foaming breakers that spread it white. He’d stood on decks that sloped like ski runs and felt the pull of currents and tides and the smash of hill-high waves. But now he was beginning to fold the wind into his senses, and it felt exhilarating, liberating even, and scary.

The wind was democratic, pushing all boats the same. To Lum, — with the mast straining, the water rushing by, the pennant whipping about — it seemed they were truly racing along. Yet watching the sedge islands lazily approach and dreamily drift by, he knew that from any observation point outside a boat it must seem a leisurely affair. At three or four knots, a good walker could have paced them. The sneakbox may be a useful, working boat, but not in a hurry. So? You did it. The boats are on the water. The press is here. There will be pictures, people will come, Mose will build boats to his dying day.

• • •

There is a separate system in the body, running alongside the circulatory system and the lymphatic system and the nerve system, not as prominent, threads to their lines and hoses, but just as sensitive to certain stimuli — the dare, the challenge, the call — at which it springs taut. It can then command all the others, pull them into service to answer the challenge, take up the torch or the spear or the flag, answer the bell, the trumpet, the jeer. It is a masculine response. Not that women don’t get it, some women, but as the division of these things go, it is male, that gender’s contribution to the species; for without it there would be no progress.

A race, no matter how relatively an amble, is the surest set-off. Lum realized that, having gotten this whole thing off the ground, onto the water, into the media mix, there was nothing left he had to do. But, being in it, he had to race.

Sunlight splattered off the ripples and sent darts of light into the sails. The hull made whispery sounds as it flew over the water while above, breaths of cloud seemed to be racing along in synch. Lum looked over to Dick Flence’s boat, easy to spot with its red-striped sail, like a pair of filled boxer shorts. Beyond that he could see Smoochy’s cross-hatch and Marya’s blooming starbursts on Wally Garber’s boat and several of the Tyveks. All were moving as if pulled by the same string.

He raised himself off his seat, stuck his arm in the air and pumped it up and down, then swept it forward: Onward! Charge! Dick Flence waved back. Wally Garber pumped his arm three times. Smoochy shouted something that the wind took away.

They were coming up on Mallard Island. Lum judged the distance to be about half a football field. The flotilla of nautical whites was rounding it like a drill team. Lum cut for the tip well before Flence or the others thought to make their turns. He came close enough to the bank to make out the rustle of the reeds. He remembered only at the last moment that this was where the garvey had gone aground and cursed his sagging brain, but the sneakbox skimmed over the mud as if it were its natural medium. He remembered Mose saying the draft was so shallow on a sneakbox “it could follow a mule as it sweats up a dusty road.” Lum cleared the point. He was so relieved that, for a moment, he forgot to make the turn. To his surprise he saw Dick Flence’s stripes not three car lengths on the outside. He quickly tacked to port, ducked the swing of the boom, played the sheets until the sail found its wind, and felt a grin stretch his cheeks.

Smoochy and Wally Garber also flanked him and Dick Flence seemed to be inching up. Mose had also said that no matter how alike he made them, “some is just faster, I don’t know why. It’s just a mystery.”

Lum cut toward the stripes, staying upwind and hoping Flence hadn’t been paying attention to some of Mose’s sailing tips. When he was about two Buicks away, he maneuvered boat, sail and will, zen-like, and saw the striped sail go limp as he stole its wind and swept by Flence, who was looking up at his sail to see where it had broken.

Steal the wind, thought Lum. Steal the wind! Where else can you do that? He felt exultant, triumphant. He slapped his sail and was surprised to feel how hard it was, how stiff. Just like my pecker, came a thought that surprised him even more. Hah! Not for a while. But what was that? What was that? Images spun in his mind, men climbing mountains, men building pyramids, church steeples. Reaching for heaven? Or staking claim? To what? To the earth? To being — a challenge to the gods, even an equivalence: Here I am, however I got here, and I’m staying.

His new wind sense brought news of a shift and he tuned his sails — that’s how he thought of it, staying in tune with the wind. The pennant was slanted sideways now, wind reaching to the northeast. He wondered if he could catch the wind better if he took it on the other side. Did he have enough distance before the big turn? He looked ahead for the orange buoy but the line of white in front of him seemed to be one boat, the width of the bay; better stay on this heading until he knew; they’d have to break for the turn.

He heard a whoop off to the right — what he considered the outside — and behind, but not far behind, and he turned to see Horst Wexler in his Tyvek coming up at a pace that was noticeably gaining. What? A better boat? Horst Wexler wasn’t a sailor! Lum glanced at the set of the Tyvek sail. It was closer to the wind than his. Could he be wrong? He pulled at the sheet and felt the little boat heel over. The centerboard! He’d forgotten to lower it after he came around Mallard Island. He quickly slipped that rope and felt the board grab as the sneakbox righted itself again. But it slowed the boat. He eased the board back up until he felt a balance. Wexler was still taking nibbles out of his lead.

He decided to tack, to see if he could coax out another bite of wind of his own. He performed the maneuver with such ease it tingled him. Just like Fred turning Ginger, he thought, and Ginger brought him Ging and all at once he saw the orange buoy and the committee boat; his blind luck had been exact. The boat knows the way, he thought.

The yachties leaned around the buoy. Lum saw that he had drawn closer to them; he could make out figures. Movement on the committee boat caught his eye. Ging was waving, both arms, then cupped her hands and shouted something but he couldn’t make it out. Now she was pointing. He turned his head just in time to see Horst Wexler’s boat fall sideways, in slow motion, the sail hitting the water like a wounded duck. He knew at once what had happened. Horst Wexler had raised his centerboard and, following Lum’s tack— he must have thought I spotted the buoy — had heeled over too far. Past the stricken boat he saw the cross-hatch and the stripes and the stars and the other Tyveks, but they were a football field or more back. His was the only boat between the whites and the muftis. And, he noted, closer to the whites!

• • •

He crept up on the scramble of white puffs and bulges, some flapping their way through a tack, some preening. And suddenly there it was, a hole, two of the whites going off in opposite directions leaving a stretch of open water that looked to Lum like the last lap of the Indy 500. The gods of racing, he decided, are serious, and he was, after all, the only one racing.

He breezed through the gap — so that’s what that means, he thought — and before any of them noticed, he was leading the field. His hand was shaking on the tiller so he thought he’d lose it. A shout went up, a lot of shouts. He didn’t look back but he could feel the air changing, a dozen wills aimed at him. Of course they were not going to let him go.

But he was going. He ventured a quick look. They were better sailors but the boats were new to them. That ought to even things out. The games had stopped, the whites were back in racing order bidding for wind, intent. Lum was bent over like a jockey. The advantage of the lead in a steady wind was now his. He saw the dock ahead, people looking through binoculars, turning to one another. “Yeah! That’s right! It’s me!”

homebookscalendarsvideoscardsforthcoming titlesbargains
all titlesordering informationauthor eventscompany information
P.O. Box 3100, Harvey Cedars New Jersey 08008
email • fax (609) 597-0422

Copyright © 2004 Down The Shore Publishing Corp. The words "Down The Shore" and logo are a registered U.S. Trademark.