Tom Paine, Vermont author, recently won the coveted
O. Henry award for his New Yorker story (October '94)

Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?

by Tom Paine

After the eye passed over, the shivering Concordia Yawl Bliss was picked up and tossed sideways down into a trough. For a moment in the dark that had been a brilliant noon two hours earlier Eliot saw a light on the horizon and knew it was the light at the top of his own mast. The light flickered and went black, and there was nothing but the white noise of the storm. The wooden yawl shuddered deep in her timbers, and Eliot was catapulted from the cockpit and landed chin first on the deck and heard his molars shatter. Weightless for a moment as Bliss dropped, Eliot again cracked down against the deck like a fish. The bow rose up the face of a mountain of water and Eliot fell head first toward the wheel. His heavy arms locked in the spokes, and his Adam's apple crunched on mahogany, and he was upside down, bare feet to the sky. Bliss paused at the crest before her bow came down hard, hurtling Eliot backward through the companionway onto the teak floor below, where he rolled in a soup of seawater and motor oil and caulking. The creaking of the hull planks rose to a moan and subsided and rose again. The garboard plank was wrenching away from the keel and the sea overwhelming the pumps. Eliot caught his breath and lifted his head. The storm paused. In the pause Eliot heard a distant plink, the single sharp piano plink of the lower shroud snapping, and then the crack of the main mast as it folded at its midsection into the sea. Bliss rose and twisted against the storm. The seaborne mast buffeted, a battering ram still wired to the hull. Eliot was braced against the sink in the galley reaching for the bolt cutters when the mast rammed through the after-hull. He crawled behind the companionway toward the hole with a red flotation cushion for a potential patch and a broken paddle for a wedge. The sea poured in against his knees. The mast broke through again, and Eliot was driven backward on a river, into the cabin. He crawled to his feet and slid an orange life jacket over his head, and Bliss was thrown from the sea into the air and turned turtle and the sea rushed into the cabin and she righted again. Climbing up the companionway, Eliot saw in the west the vaporous glow of the end of the storm working toward him. He thrust his arms through the wheel and watched the light grow, and a rogue wave dropped from the heavens and drove Bliss down into the sea.
Eliot's shoulders and head bobbed in the sea like a red bottle. He was shirtless and stripped of his life jacket, and his face bloated from twenty-four hours of exposure and oozing from cuts and abrasions. His eyes were swollen half shut. The sharp nubs of his broken teeth lanced at his tongue and Eliot counted six--three to starboard and three to port. Once a dolphin flew out of the sea not far from Eliot, but it didn't come again, and the sea was mute. Eliot's lips fissured and the fissures spread red and raw. At night he watched the sky for a shooting star but never asked to be saved when he saw the first one, and there were dozens, as if every star in the sky was thrown down. He floated on his back all night and missed Bliss more than anyone because Bliss was perfection. Eliot exhaled and sank under, down to his blistered lips and nose, and when he filled his lungs the white island of his belly emerged, breaking the black surface, and he let the breath go in a gasp and sank down again and then pulled the night again into his lungs. It went on and on, this rising and falling. Morning pinched the stars from the sky one at a time, and Eliot watched them go, and slowly the gray turned to yellow and then gold, and the sun burned at the edge of the Atlantic Sea.
On the second day, Eliot saw something long and shiny in the sun, and he paddled to it. It was the boom of Bliss, yellow varnished Sitka spruce rolling in the sea. Eliot removed his belt from the tight loops of his bunched shorts. He tied the belt around the boom and and looped his arm through the sling and fell back with a groan and hung in the water. He slid his burning face under the sea and looked up through its lens at a cloud quivering like mercury and blew silver bubbles to the surface. His face turned down toward the depths, and his puffy hand drifted before his face, and his Princeton ring sparkled gold in the airy blue. Eliot pointed downward and cried out with the last air in his lungs, and the cry warbled in the water, and his breath bubbled up his forehead. He broke the surface gasping and flopped up across the boom with his face in the sea. Eliot looked down into the water ten meters, where there was nothing, just liquid blue fading into black. He turned his head and sucked in a loud breath and searched the deserted sea. Skin shriveled off his shoulders and drifted down and away as Eliot held his breath and watched the sails of skin battered in the invisible eddies.
On the day before leaving for this singlehanded sail--out of the Bahamas and bound for St. Barts--Eliot had stood over his secretary's desk with his bag over his shoulder and written a check for fifty thousand dollars. Eliot told her to send it to David Mercer at Fleet, with best regards. Eliot's tenth Princeton reunion was in June and he had been taunting David--threatening not to give any money this year--and one night was watching David squirm in his chair at the Princeton Club when David said out of the blue, What if something happened? What if something happened when?
On your trip, David said. Your sailing trip.
Like what? Eliot said.
Like something could happen.
Like what could happen?
David raised his mineral water to his lips. Eliot, don't you see something
could go wrong?
I've singlehanded Bliss dozens of times.
So you're not afraid.
Not really.
You think it's impossible?
You know.
I never think about that.
I think about dropping twenty pounds. Wasn't this dinner about money?
Eliot, do you mind my making a personal comment?
No more than usual.
That's kind of fucked.
Yes? You think so?
Yes. I do.
Let me tell you something, David.
I'm listening.
You won't understand this at all.
Say it, Eliot.
I don't really understand it myself.
Understand what?
The world loves me.
David stared at Eliot, and the waiter arrived and stood over their table looking from one man to the other. Ready to order, sirs?
David shook his head and rubbed at the creases in his brow. He looked at Eliot, who hadn't aged since Princeton. Eliot finished his drink and looked up at the waiter and ordered another. The waiter nodded and turned to David, who looked at Eliot and repeated, The world loves you? The waiter's gaze swivelled back to Eliot. Eliot laughed and shook his beautiful strawberry head. The laughter rolled up out of him as if he were a child being tickled. What, said David. What's so funny?

The third day the sea was glass, and then the wind whispered at noon and feathered the glass in running swaths. For hours, Eliot watched the swaths dapple in the sun, and once a dolphin rose against the horizon. Eliot hooked the belt around his head, using it as a sling under his chin, and slept lightly for a few hours with his head against the boom. When he awoke, his throat was on fire, and he wanted to drink from the sea and he swallowed, and the salt burned like acid down his throat. Soon the sun was slipping away and the breeze blew cool on the burned skin of his face and shoulders. The sun dropped out of sight, and Eliot saw the green flash, and the green flash was a sure sign to him. When he closed his eyes he saw the solar phenomenon lingering like green lightning on the glowing red interior of his swollen eyelids. Tomorrow, said Eliot, nodding to the universe with closed eyes.
At dawn, Eliot took the metal edge at the end of the belt and carved a line next to the other three scratches. He tried to think of something dramatic to scratch in the boom for posterity and could only think of adding his name, Eliot Swan. He closed his eyes and saw the boom over the fieldstone fireplace in the pastel living room of his house in Locust Valley and saw himself standing under it telling the story of his shipwreck. There were many people in the room listening, but they were all strangers. Eliot tried to picture the face of his former wife, Claudia, or his former partner, Clive, or one of his former mistresses, Ilena or Mandy, or his doubles partner, Henry, or his broker, Dutch, but Eliot could not recall a single face. For a moment Eliot thought he saw the face of the green-eyed Florentine waitress he was screwing when the sink broke and Claudia came in screaming and he went on pumping and laughing on the floor of the gabinetto, tossing Claudia all the lire in his pocket--but it wasn't the waitress, and Eliot gave up and opened his eyes.
The wind started after sunrise and whipped a spray off the tops of the waves. Eliot's boom bobbled against his bruised ribs, and he looked up at the clouds filling the sky. He cinched his belt tighter against the boom so there was no gap, and rode the slap and bounce of the agitated sea. The clouds darkened during the day and soon a low front appeared and sheeted across under the cumulus in long raked strips of black. A drizzle fell, and Eliot opened his mouth and drank as the drizzle became a downpour and then a wooden pounding of raindrops, filling his mouth as fast as he could swallow. Then the rain stopped as if a conductor had sliced his baton through the air and with his white-gloved hand swept away the clouds and calmed the sea. Eliot felt the life from the rain pass into his wilting body, down his arms to his hands, and he ran his fingers through his hair. The strawberry hair came off in clumps and spread on the water. It floated with him and clung to his chest when he rose from the sea. Eliot loosened a canine tooth for hours with his tongue, and it fell out when he was face down in the water. It waggled through the chalky blue, sparkling in the shafts of underwater light until it winked and was swallowed by the dark below. Eliot ran his tongue over the bloody, wet crater until the taste of blood was gone and his mouth was dry and he smelled bile in his throat. Eliot raised his chin to the setting sun.
Tomorrow then, he said.

Eliot heard voices--not the voices in the wind, but voices from a radio far away that faded and then crackled again. He heard a splashing sound and the creaking of timber and was sure it was a boat. He cried out, but there was nothing, not even the sound of the waves slapping against his boom. Eliot pulled on the boom and twisted his head slowly like a radar receiver. It was morning. He lowered his head and shielded his eyes with his forearm. Eliot heard muffled foreign voices, and wood splashing in the water. He tried to call out, but his voice snapped and there was only a croaking. The boat's waves splashed toward him, and Eliot heard a jumble of voices overhead. The shadow of the bow fell over him, and his boom was banging against the boat. Eliot felt feet on his shoulders and toes searching under his armpits. He reached upward slowly. His hands touched thin ankles but slid down and fell back into the water. The voices were loud now. Eliot clung to the boom. A rope fell on his head. Eliot raised his arms and understood and pulled the rough rope over his burned shoulders. He was dragged up the side of the boat, wood against his belly. A woman yelled and Eliot felt something sharp on the side of the boat catching his foot. The sharpness pulled deeply in the skin of his instep as he was yanked upward and Eliot scraped over the gunwale and flopped like a large dead fish onto the deck.
The sun burned through his blind eyes. There were yellow spots on the backs of his eyelids. The yellow broke up and scattered into a thousand small suns, and Eliot saw ideas whipping around his head as if in a hurricane, taunting him and then fading. A woman's voice was in his ear. There was a cloth and warm water, and she was wiping his eyes tenderly. The woman was singing a lullaby. The others were quiet while she sang in his ear and wiped his eyes. Her breath steamed on his ear. The boat creaked, but there was no motion on the deck. Eliot tried to get up on his elbows. There was a clamor of voices, and he lay down again. Water was poured into his mouth and it curled warm down within him. Eliot felt a thumb on his eyelid, pushing upward. His eyelid opened and Eliot saw a yellow eye. Monsieur, parlez-vous francais?
The thumb held his eye open, and Eliot saw a black face with cracked red lips and broken teeth. Eliot moved his head to the side, releasing the thumb, and blinked. He rubbed his eyes with his aching hands and he could see dozens of black faces crowded over him, waiting silently. A man in a torn light-blue shirt dress shirt with dirty white ruffles said, Parlez-vous francais? Eliot opened his lips and said, I am American.
The faces turned to the short man with the ruffles and he waved his hand like an impresario and pointed at Eliot and said triumphantly, U.S.A.! The faces, open-mouthed, looked down at Eliot, and the man in the ruffles nodded like a king and pointed at him and repeated, U.S.A.! Their faces floated down to him and bobbed in the air, and Eliot felt dozens of dry hot hands patting his belly. The old woman who had sung the lullaby to him cried, her hands over her face, and ran her wet palms lightly over his forehead. Eliot saw many in the crowd make the sign of the cross and raise their eyes to the heavens, and the man in the ruffled shirt cut through the crowd and his face drifted down. He took Eliot's hand and said, I am Alphonse. Eliot.
Monsieur Eliot, said Alphonse. We are happy to see you now.
Where are you from?
We are left from Haiti.
How long at sea?
We are at sea twenty days.
Does this boat sail?
There is a storm, Monsieur Eliot. We have no good sails.
We are very happy to see you now. v Eliot looked up at the mast and saw it was a telephone pole and the boom was a series of boards lashed together with black rope. A patchwork sail hung limp against the mast, and broken ropes hung loose like vines. The rough wood on the side of the boat was covered with the cryptic destinations of old shipping crates. Eliot could see the sea, flat and silent through the cracks. A small boy with a large head pushed through the crowd and looked at Eliot and poured a bucket of dirty seawater over the side of the boat. Alphonse looked down at Eliot and smiled.
Now we are saved, said Alphonse.
Eliot looked up at the empty blue sky, and for the first time it seemed foreign and unknown to him. He looked at it and closed his eyes and retreated into the shell of his body. Because you are American, we are saved.
Alphonse took Eliot's hand in his own and pressed it to his heart. You have a big boat? said Alphonse. She sank.
You are very rich?
Eliot said nothing, but his throat burned.
Alphonse spread his hands wide and his face snapped into a fiery grin. He turned and spoke rapidly in Creole to the other faces. All the Haitians spoke at once, and some of the old women raised their hands to the sky, and a few of the men cried. Alphonse raised Eliot's hand and kissed his Princeton ring.
What did you tell them?
I tell them you are a rich American and very big in America and now the President of the United States will make them look for you and we are saved. They are very happy to hear this good news. The Haitians hugged one another and scanned the horizon and beamed at Alphonse. Eliot looked up at the sky and closed his eyes.
The sea was light-blue ice. The sun was insolent and bitter. The Haitians were silent, sprawled on the burning wood of the deck as if struck down. They had placed Eliot on a platform in the center of the boat, and Alphonse had used his pale-blue shirt to rig an awning over Eliot's head. An old man grunted from the front of the boat, and other voices were praying with a sound like cicadas. A woman stood in the bow, fishing with a string. When Eliot moved his head he saw faces twitch and look up at him from the deck with expectation. The sail quivered occasionally as if possessed. Eliot's right foot throbbed for the first two days. A nail sticking out of the planks on the side of the boat had gashed jagged and deep. A faded little girl came to look at Eliot and ran her soft fingers down the length of his body until she came to his foot, where she stopped and lowered her face and sniffed. She went back to Eliot's head and knocked on his skull lightly with her hand balled into a fist. Then she pointed to his toe and pinched her nose. The girl looked at Eliot and Eliot looked at the girl. Eliot turned his head, and Alphonse, who was always watching from nearby, where he squatted inside a cardboard box, stood slowly and hobbled over. Alphonse took Eliot's hand and pressed it to his chest and squinted at the horizon with his yellow eyes. Alphonse, said Eliot.
Oui, Monsieur Eliot?
My foot is infected.
Alphonse looked at Eliot's foot and held it between his fingers and twisted it from side to side. Monsieur Eliot, said Alphonse. It is not bad.
It is bad, said Eliot. It is infected.
Alphonse looked out across the sea, still holding Eliot's toe.
You are big man in America, said Alphonse. They will come for you.
Alphonse let go of Eliot's foot and returned to his box. A wrinkled woman shuffled over and poured a few drops of water into Eliot's mouth from the good edge of a broken glass. A few minutes later a young girl carefully poured a few drops into his mouth from a rusty can. Alphonse watched them and nodded from his box. Eliot kept his mouth open, and one by one Haitians came to him and offered a few drops of their supply. In the evening, the woman who had sung the lullaby in his ear hummed a song and laid her cool hand on Eliot's hot forehead and Eliot closed his eyes and nodded. She stopped and pulled back her hand and looked down at him and her hand in surprise. In the melody or the touch Eliot had remembered something, something as rare in his life as the green flash at sunset. Others came during the evening and spoke in Creole and touched his body, and sometimes they cried and wiped their tears on his chest. Alphonse came and took down the awning when it was dark and gave Eliot a few gulps of water. Then he went back to his box and watched Eliot look up at the stars. On the fifth day no one brought him water, and he knew there was no water, and on the sixth day he heard the Haitians lying near him scuttle away. He knew it was the smell of his rotting foot. Alphonse stood over his foot and with his thumb traced the blue lines of poison up Eliot's calf to his knee. Eliot saw only a shimmering black form moving like liquid in the glare, but Eliot smelled the rot from his toe and had seen the blue lines of the poison creeping along his veins toward his heart. Monsieur? said Alphonse.
Cut it off.
Monsieur, you know the Americans will come. He pointed out to sea.
Cut it off, said Eliot. Above the knee.
Non, non, Monsieur Eliot. We wait for tomorrow.
Do it today. You have a machete?
No, Monsieur, not today.
Monsieur Eliot?
Take my ring.
Alphonse shook his head sharply and hobbled back to his box. The sun was egg-shell blue through the shirt-awning above Eliot's head. The boat whispered with the sounds of scorched lungs, and Eliot wanted to say he was a skeleton bleaching in the sun. Eliot did not understand. With his eyes closed, he saw the skeleton lying on the deck, bleached and white. He tried to open his eyes and hold them open, staring at the strange sky; he tried to count to a hundred, but when his eyes fell closed he saw the skeleton. At dusk Eliot turned his head to the side in time to see a dolphin leap and the sea flat again. The first Haitian died on the night of the sixth day. Eliot heard grunting and a splash and turned his head to see Alphonse and another man leaning over the side of the boat. In the morning when the sky was still pink Eliot heard another splash, but before this splash there was a sharp shout and another shout from Alphonse in the box. Alphonse hobbled to his side and said, It is the husband of the woman from the night. Alphonse took Eliot's hand, and Alphonse's head and face were red and on fire.
I love America, he said. I teach myself to speak English. I listen to English on the radio for many years. We make this boat. We go to America. My daughter with me. You will see, Monsieur Eliot. Take off the leg, said Eliot.
Tomorrow, said Alphonse.
Alphonse, said Eliot. Take off the leg or I'll die.
If you die, Monsieur Eliot, many will die.
They see you, Monsieur Eliot. You are here. C'est un miracle. The sea is big and you are here from America. Un miracle. You see? I'm going to die.
You will not die, Monsieur Eliot. Many pray for you. Do you pray, Monsieur?
Alphonse stayed with Eliot and held his hand through the day. The sun hammered, and there was no air. The smell of his foot was strong and the two of them wheezed through their mouths. Alphonse held Eliot's hand and sat exposed to the sun on the edge of the platform. In the afternoon Alphonse wet a rag on a string over the side of the boat and wiped Eliot's forehead. Alphonse emptied water from below over the side of the boat and hobbled around the boat every hour and whispered to the Haitians the word "America" and pointed at Eliot. At dusk, Alphonse brought a little girl no more than five to his side, holding her up from behind as if teaching her to walk, and she watched Eliot. Her ribs showed through her torn shirt. She looked up at Alphonse, who smiled, and the girl smiled, and Alphonse walked her away.
On the night of the seventh day, Eliot heard more bodies going over the side. Those that went with a splash and grunts Eliot knew were already dead, but many more went with a sucking sound and Eliot knew those had jumped and some cried out and there was no question. Alphonse sat with Eliot all day on the eighth day and even found a few drops of water for his lips. On that night the bodies again jumped or were dropped over the side, and Alphonse came to him at dawn and held Eliot's foot gently in his hands. How many on the boat? said Eliot.
I do not know. We are many.
How many? A hundred?
We are many. I know everyone. We are many, and many are family.
How many are gone?
They are gone, Monsieur. The others are alive.
How many?
Alphonse shrugged. It is too late for them. I pray for those who live.

The woman who had sung the lullaby to Eliot died at noon and was carried by three men to the side of the boat. Her body was rested on the railing and rolled slowly over the side, and her splash cut through the heat. The splash echoed in Eliot's skull and he closed his eyes and a green flash turn to black. Alphonse went to the railing and looked down at the sea and made the sign of the cross. A young woman with a scar on her nose stood on shaking legs in the center of the boat and sang in slow Creole. She swayed and sang with eyes closed, and other voices from the floor of the boat rose up in the sun. The woman collapsed after hanging like a puppet with a look of surprise. Alphonse hobbled to her and he carried her in his arms and dropped her over the side of the boat. On the way back to his box he stopped and looked at his feet and said, My daughter. Eliot closed his eyes.
Monsieur Eliot, my daughter.
Eliot turned his head away.
Alphonse sat with Eliot and cried with no tears and asked him to say something please about the President of the United States and how the boats would come to take them all to America. Tell them, Monsieur Eliot. They believe you.
At night the Haitians flew over the side like black ghosts and Eliot heard their footsteps as they passed his platform and heard them go into the sea. Eliot heard the feet pass him and then the hands on the edge of the boat and only once a shout and a loud splash, and in the morning watched a body floating near the boat. A foot stuck up stiff in the air. Alphonse was sitting in his box with his face in his hands, and Eliot thought Alphonse was dead.
Eliot heard a fly. He tried to see the fly but he could not turn his head, and the sound of the fly grew louder. Eliot looked up, and the sound of the fly became the sound of an engine, and he heard the helicopter coming and the helicopter was right over his head, whooshing over the boat. The helicopter swung around again and blocked the sun. Eliot saw the American flag on the side. Two seamen in white helmets looked down from the wide door, and one waved. The men swung a net down to the boat with dozens of plastic jugs, and Eliot could feel feet moving on the boat toward the supplies. Eliot felt the cool wash from the blades. An aluminum gurney rocked down from helicopter. Hands slipped him into the gurney, and it rose swinging in the air. Eliot was pulled into the empty cave of the helicopter. The pilot turned his blue eyes to Eliot and raised his thumb as he spoke rapidly into a small rectangular microphone over his lips. A seaman hanging from a strap leaned forward and yelled into the pilot's face, motioning with a jerk of his head toward the boat below. The pilot shook his head and with two flicks of his forefinger pointed to Eliot and the horizon. The helicopter suddenly swung around, banking hard, and Eliot's head rolled to the side and he was looking down at the deck. He saw them waving up to him, five Haitians standing and supporting each other, passing a jug of water. Many others were crawling toward the water jugs, and even some of those on their backs were waving and smiling. The helicopter circled around again and slipped down, and Eliot saw Alphonse emerge from his box. Alphonse stood stiffly, face raised, and turned slowly on his bare feet, watching the helicopter circle. The helicopter circled again, and Alphonse swiveled on the deck, never taking his eyes off the helicopter, his arms limp at his sides, and when the helicopter circled a final time Alphonse slowly raised his arms. Eliot blinked and Alphonse collapsed on the deck and Eliot looked down at the crumpled form until his face was pulled around gently by the chin. A smiling medic looked down at Eliot. The medic stuck an I.V. into Eliot's arm and wet his face and dribbled cold water into his mouth from an eyedropper. Eliot closed his eyes and closed his stiff lips around the long plastic nipple. The helicopter levelled and shot low across the turquoise sea.

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