The Albatrossity Exhibition

This took shape as intended re-telling of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but done in a J.G. Ballard / Samuel Taylor Coleridge mashup.  It was originally published in Milkfist Vol. 1 (ed. Ian Kappos).  It’s here for a limited time:

 

THE ALBATROSSITY EXHIBITION

or, Why I Want to Fuck the Ancient Mariner

by Gordon B. White

 

Premonitions of Apocalypse. The sea shanties—which the Mariner himself is discouraged by lash from joining—are preoccupied with human sacrifice. It is as if the constant grinding molars of the ice caps and now the smothering and turbid heat has awakened a rabid hunger in the other sailors’ brains. The Captain barks them into silence, but nothing can quiet the Mariner.

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The Robing of the Bride. In the yellow moonlight, the whitewashed church is the mottle of walrus ivory, embedded like a tusk at the end of the red path that skirts the seaside cliff. From a distance, the gaps between the salt-blasted boards stand out like a scrimshaw which Martin, the groomsman, can almost decipher. Cracks between the bowing beams cut like life and heart lines through an alabaster palm, encircling the stained glass windows and emerging from the red tile roof only to contract within the dark whorl of the belfry. As Martin sinks onto the moss-covered limestone along the path’s edge, he realizes that he is staring at his hands. He feels incomplete. Martin shuts his eyes and hears voices in the distance.

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Vanguard. In the magnetic extremities deep below the Line, the sea has built itself into a glacial palace. Emerald and sapphire mountains break off from the main body and drift in a lazy phalanx like giants in the night. The geological scale of their movement is numbing and Mero, the first mate, is oblivious to their submerged and secret designs until the ship is surrounded. Fog drips from spires to fill the basin and strange things sing above the splintering ice. The silhouettes of worse things reel through the mist.

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Dimedea exulans, the “Wandering Albatross.”  Average wingspan of 2.51 to 3.5 meters, reported up to 5.3 meters, but unverified to date. Body length of 107 cm to 135 cm, weight of 5.9 to 12.7 kg. The Wandering Albatross possesses a salt gland above its nasal passage that helps desalinate the bird’s bloodstream—necessary due to the amount of seawater it must imbibe. As a result of its adapted biology, the Wandering Albatross excretes a high saline solution from its nose that some mariners, unfamiliar with avian biology, mistake for tears. For creatures without a similar gland, the effects of consuming saltwater are toxic.

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The Emperor. A rice paper portrait of Kublai Khan acquired in an eastern port in exchange for a daguerreotype of the Queen of England. This painting of the founder of the Yuan Dynasty is executed competently in the shui-mo hua style of inkwash painting. Simple and bold black lines trace the man’s face and mustache; variations in thickness lend it the illusion of depth. In the dolorous fog, Mero and the painting’s owner hold a lamp like a magic lantern to cast the backlit brushwork into the mist. “There was another picture of mountains and rivers with lots more lines,” the shipmate says. “But I see those everywhere. I never see a Chinaman.”  By morning, the shipmate is gone but the fog is not. Mero takes the portrait and a golden thumb ring from the mate’s footlocker.

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As the Crow Flies. Following the line of the albatross’s wings, the Navigator extricates the ship from its crystal prison. The ice bawls behind them, gnashing the bone-white haze, but fresh wind carries the ship northward. Gentle breezes press on but even subtropical sun will not burn through the engulfing fog. Like conqueror’s cast, the albatross perches on the spar and will not move. After nine days, Mero begins to contemplate the intersections of motion and stillness.

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Malediction. Splayed across the aft deck, the albatross’s wings and neck and legs are broken spokes. The wheel of pooling blood mixes with the ever-present layer of seawater and spreads as pink foam across the wood’s pitched stain. Mero’s crossbow bolt has sheared off the pyramidal keel bone, deflected through the liver and gall bladder, and the extruding tip now props up the body. Clouds of thunderhead and mist-white plumage float above the raw, sloshing horizon. Mero kneels beside the bird while the crew moans. The timbre of the ship is like a groaning whale as the fog disperses and the wind begins to howl.

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Portraiture. A pewter locket with gilt edges, a spinner bail, and rusted filigree once intended for perfume. Stolen as part of a larger parcel of jewelry on shore leave. Shaped and hinged like a bivalve, it is adorned with counterpoint portraits of a man and woman done in different styles. As the ship nears the tropics, the sailors make up stories for the couple. Husband and Wife. May and December. Father and Daughter. Death and Life.

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Intaglio. Engraved into the locket’s sinister side, an old man with a starched collar occupies negative space. His Roman nose, receding hairline, and stentorian brow carve a face of trenches and furrows. A bored sailor once used a ship’s nail to over-scribe the original, carving out vacuous eyes and a too-wide smile. The resulting lines sketch a skeleton in groomsman’s garb. “When you close it up, it’s like he’s kissing her.”  The seaman Feriero demonstrates with wet slurps. “Why shouldn’t he be smiling?”

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Cameo. On the right-hand side, a young woman is done up in raised ivory, a relief in contrast to her sunken companion. Faint cross-hatching conveys light-colored hair and thick lines are her full, red lips that have faded with time. Burnished from countless brushes of the sailors’ fingers, her mouth is worn down and greasy. “She’s been kissing that one too long.” Feriero laughs as he opens and shuts the locket. Open, shut, open, shut. Sad and happy, Life and Death.

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Repetition and Imitation and Repetition. The deck’s long planks shrink in the heat. The thick and thin lines of board and seam trade places as the wood contracts into itself and the gaps begin to grow. Respite, when it comes, arrives as rain or wind-blown spray that seeps back into the timber and fills them out into their intended planes. Feriero laughs. He opens and shuts the locket. The sun shines and the wind blows. Open, shut, shrink, swell. Open, shut, shrink, swell. Then the wind stops blowing, and Feriero stops laughing.

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Doldrums. Where once the day was filled with birds, now nothing moves through the dead air. The warm and rotting skin of the sky drapes across the ship. Methane and sulfur odors of decomposition rise from the water. One hundred and ninety-nine men fall ill, vomiting and evacuating into slop buckets and across the railings in extremis. Only Mero is not afflicted.

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Ghost. Side effects of dehydration may range from mild irritability to severe hallucinations. Adverse effects are seen after as little as 1 to 2% reduction in water weight through fluid loss. Mental side effects occur when the body, which does not store water, absorbs moisture from the brain in an attempt to maintain functioning. As the brain tissue shrinks and electrolytes are lost, documented cases of hallucinations may occur in as little as three days, even in climate-controlled conditions.

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Imitation and Repetition and Imitation. By day, the sky and sea meld into a featureless cobalt plane. By night, witchfire burns in the water to mirror the catatonic stars and re-create an endless empty cosmos. Without the constant whisper of the waves, a proxy murmuring develops below the brittle deck. Primitive beliefs in sympathetic magic reemerge and whispers of blood sacrifice float to the surface. The birdless sky demands a bird. Unaffected Mero demands affliction. Only by realigning the weights and measures can the balance be set right and the world once again begin to turn. Man and bird and sky and wind and water.

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Calibrations of Ballast. The reek of regurgitation and feces smothers Mero as the other sailors bear him to the mast. Mero screams to be released, but the weight of numbers keeps him in the sailors’ shriveled hands. The Captain reels across the deck, addled by exposure and myriad deficiencies, giggling as the crowd bends Mero’s arms around the pole in hyperextended crucifixion. Feriero brings forth a length of barely-cured sinew line and the moldering corpse of the albatross.

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Homology of Forms. All living creatures share a common ancestry, the point of past divergence suggesting greater or lesser degrees of anatomical commonality. For instance, the human hand is comprised of wrist bone (carpal), hand bones (metacarpals), and fingers (phalanges, proximal to distal). Compare the gracile, flexible human carpals to those of ungulates, such as sheep. Sheeps’ “knucklebones” are far sturdier, their thickness and defined ridges of articulation making them prized for use as dice, particularly in divination. Further, beginning with the thumb, the human phalanges (singular:  phalanx) may be numbered one through five. Birds’ wings also contain phalanges two through five, albeit in elongated configurations; however, they no longer have the first phalanx.

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Sore. Freed of the lash and bindings, the Mariner flaps around the deck, squawking at his liberation. New wings splash crimson sunsets across the deck as he tumbles, his face crashing into the warm and congealing deck. The remnant of the albatross bursts and scatters beneath the impact. Around the Mariner, the exposed flesh of dead men cures in the salt-dry air even as their damper patches fester and spoil. The Mariner rolls himself to the nearest corpse and forces his raw and bloody hands into its pockets. He removes:  a pair of dice; a locket; a soiled handkerchief monogrammed “F.C.”; a stubbed oyster knife. In the red sunset, his burned and peeling head bobs like a buzzard’s cowl as he saws through the hemp that binds his feet.

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Crew of Deadmen. Log entry, Capt. Monteville of The Despin:  At first light spotted schooner on horizon; failed to return signal. Boarding party under Mate Bastien returned with one survivor, responsive but incoherent. Mariner being treated for extreme exposure; injuries to neck, back; v. severe trauma to hands. Exhibits delirium: screams names of persons unknown; repeats “bless you” (poss. ship’s Chaplain?). Party reports corpses in various states of desecration/decomposition littering deck. From helm, large flocks of gulls and albatrosses noted—most likely eating carrion. Decision not to salvage ship; left adrift after no crew would return to scuttle. What happened here?

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Observations from the Malus. An atrocity that one is powerless to either prevent or to participate in becomes a spectacle. There is no further obligation than to contemplate its geometry and composition, observing as lines intersect and objects realign themselves from positions of potential energy through kinetic states and back into repose. The Mariner watches as a belaying pin cracks the Captain’s parietal bone. A pistol shot cracks into the mast beside the Mariner, the closest thing to a breeze in weeks.

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The Decline of Civility. The final argument erupts not over what to do with the Mariner, but how to do it. Discourse fails spectacularly. The Bosun digs his thumbs into the hollow of the Cook’s eyes. The Spaniard drives a thin knife into the Pilot’s chest, twisting the cheap blade until its pits catch against bone and snap off in the Pilot’s lung. Bodies create new configurations of limbs and tools and teeth. Someone’s intestines coil alongside the halyard line. The din is thicker than the tooth-grey fog that had once swallowed the ship. The brutal cacophony over-encumbers the Mariner’s senses, transliterating into silence.

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Sub Silentio. Flattened against the unmoving horizon, the spectacle continues in pantomime. A dirty Punch and Judy show. A shadow play of marionettes. The Mariner is a captive audience with arms twisted and thumbs bound by a cord spun cutting-tight around the marlinspike. His chest heaves but the sullen air is too thick for even waves of sound. The molting corpse of the albatross hanging from the Mariner’s neck bobs and dances above his hysterics, rotten feathers falling like lead onto the deck before him.

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The Flying Dutchman. In his stress position, the Mariner is an open font of superstition. A ghost vessel circles the now-quiet ship, its ribs exposed like a whale carcass buoyed by the bloat of decomposition before its fetid remains sink back into the flat waters. The Mariner cannot see it, but he hears the gulls’ wings flapping like canvas and the wet slap of beaks feasting on the ghost ship’s crew.

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Fata Morgana. A superior illusion in the narrow band directly above the horizon, the mirages alternate between compression and extension to create unrecognizable distortions. Rays of light bend as they pass through the thermal inversions and the fluctuations dance like serpents encircling the world. Sea snakes, eels, bait worms; the limbless beasts whip and writhe as the Mariner pulls against his bonds and feels his fingers stretching. Pinioned like an angel in the anticipation of flight, he strains with ecstatic fervor as the bands cut deeply into his thumbs. Above his carpometacarpal joint, the Mariner’s blistered skin begins to chafe and then to slough.

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The Sea Fox. After the first one comes loose and tears free, the Mariner is still bound to the mast by his other thumb. The leather strip has swollen in the salt air, its knot calcifying into a single nodule. With only four fingers on his free hand and teeth too loose from scurvy to pry it undone, the Mariner plants his foot against the mast and rears back screaming.

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Cleromancy. Afterwards, after bursting forth and falling and finding the knife to free his feet, the Mariner is once again becalmed as the sun sets. He clamps his bleeding hands beneath his armpits and stares at the previously opposable phalanges that lie on the deck. With no roll to the ocean, they are motionless, inviting him to divine the future from their cast. The golden ring around the base of the left one reminds the Mariner of the necklace worn by the woman in the cameo, as well as the sunrise across the empty horizon. He sits down beside his thumbs and leans against the mast, waiting to meet the morning and his fate.

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Argo Navis. The waves scatter the sheared mast, cracked wooden sternum, and ribs smashed by the low shoals off the coast. The sudden squall that obliterated The Despin is itself as thoroughly unmade by currents of air as The Despin by currents of water. The broken lengths of bodies and vessel crosshatch the ripple marks on the shores of grasping finger inlets. The shredded black clouds lap away over the horizon, drawn out over the tide like crematory angels. From the shadow of the red and white church above the shoreline, the Hermit, the Pilot, and the Pilot’s son watch for signs of life and wait for them to end before scrabbling down the cliffs to sandpipe among the bones.

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Charcoal Sketches. The Pilot’s oil lamp extracts lines of shadow from the broken ship and smears them like pitch across the chalk cliffs. Each flicker rearranges the liquid geometry as if searching for the right alignment to re-seam the ship and seamen. In tidal pools, crabs and scavengers skitter beneath the new detritus, plucking at the more substantial pieces of carrion. In the flame, limbs judder and disarticulated torsos seem to breathe as crustaceans mindlessly gorge themselves within. A severed hand scurries across the ghost-pale sand in front of the Pilot’s boy.

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L’Ange de Foyer. The boy’s high keening scream pierces the night. Clawed and incomplete, possessed by animating intelligence, something snatches at his trouser leg from the shadow beneath the shattered compass box. The debris gives way and the ragged creature pushes to its feet, unfurling itself and crowing, burning in the lamp’s glow like a phoenix arrested mid-immolation. The Pilot’s boy brays wordless noise, his eyes loose and rolling as if the delicate membrane holding them in place had been pressed too hard and burst. Above him, the Mariner’s own screech descends into a low whooping call and he turns, swinging his arms and broken hands as he runs towards the familiar path that cuts back up through the cliffs. Back towards home.

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Cymatic Commitments. From where he sits beside the road, Martin can hear the bassoon in the church swell and roll down the red path, its waves pouring over the cliff and onto the beach below. Through the bass, human voices rise and burst from the depths like ballasts loosed from the hold. Joy and terror occupy the same modes and wavelengths at this this distance and Martin can only make out the pitch and roll of excitement. The ceremony is complete. Martin sits and waits to meet the source of the sound.

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Trinkets. A figure on the cliff face; a bird on the horizon; a sail beneath the lighthouse; a ship beyond the Line. A sketch; a shadow; an embossment; a decorative incision in the gilding on the edge of the world.

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Terrible Bounty. A wide and empty, glassy sky the color and consistency of still water.

 

THE END