What’s That Word Again?

Danny Fantom

The port was nestled deeply in the overdeveloped shore, our slow progression to open sea like a reluctant moth emerging from a cocoon. The meager string of lights that stretched from funnel to bow was an inconsequential compliment to the glittering high rises and tropical luxury that we passed by, their broad glamour a buttress I clung to, anxious and unsure of this new journey even amongst the lime-tinged revelry happening on the boat. Some of those luxurious renters that reclined along their balconies, seemed all too happy to wave at us, a few wagging their blenders full of margaritas in return. The shoreline inexorably regressed from a dazzling force to a shimmering line, and as I clutched at the railing, the last person to wave at me did so from a sort of floating island gazebo, their boat attached to its anchoring pillar and waiting to take them home. 

          What a foolish feeling . . . there I was on a direct path to a sunny, beautiful island destination and yet I wanted nothing more than to jump on that stranger’s boat and ask for a ride home! Pessimistic recollections of that dreadful year for cruises (2010, I think?) and onion sandwiches paraded through my mind before I forced it away, watching my family jump into a line dance just in front of the deck pool.

          The sun sunk underneath the sea when the last light on land flickered out of sight, and I sat on the overstuffed, large seats and stared out at the black void. There was no separation between sky and sea, and the only thing to keep me from being swallowed up too, was the artificial light just above me. I sat there, quiet, clutching a gloomy novel, and savoring gloomy thoughts. I thought about feelings that there weren’t quite words for. Not in English, and maybe not in any other languages that I knew. 

          It had been hours since we left Florida- and my comfort zone- behind, so I knew rationally that we were in “international waters, en route to the Bahamas,” but a very frazzled part of me could only wonder about the many sharks and other fish we were disturbing. Damn some wretched man’s imperial imaginary lines, what I knew for sure was that I was encroaching upon something ancient, and I feared I wasn’t showing enough respect. This was their home, and I was the interloper who just wanted to be in my own home, and not on this boat, but that was just the fear of the unknown talking (I think). 

          It’s strange, and beautiful, to watch the sea shiver around the impudent push of a ship’s bow through its body. To see waves made from the bold violence of this egregiously bright, loud thing that disturbs an ancient entity’s peace. And then to watch the truth of how insignificant we are, that those waves don’t last more than a few feet before once more succumbing to the heavy weight of the ocean, and return to a black mirror. I think the word for such a feeling is yūgen. Awareness of how profound the beauty of the universe is, and its unstopping return to natural order, and feel something powerful . . . something unnameable and stark. 

          But that’s not the word I’m looking for. This feeling is deeper than that. This feeling starts with the inexorable grace of the ocean and encompasses the sky above, with a fat full moon sitting daintily atop a puff of cloud, and how the water seems to gently rebuff its celestial glitter. The moon’s too high, it’s almost disconnected from this reality, this heavy ship and its presumptuous path through an unrelenting sea, leaving me without the privilege of a mångata to separate heaven and ocean. I stared straight ahead and tried to see where the horizon was, but what was there to see in the void but myself? 

          I fully recognized that sulking about a free trip to the Bahamas was a remarkably petty problem, but what can I say? I’m a petty person with a very solid comfort zone, and a heaping, healthy dose of respect (fear) for all the secret things hidden in deep water. All my eagerness for travel and adventure died around the same time I turned 25- which, yes, does coincide with the pandemic and its ongoing state, even with my masking and caution- so this was . . . an affront. But an affront that I chose. Because the emotional consequences of saying no to this trip with my family would have been a lot longer than this cruise, and a lot more annoying. 

          In that unlit distance I could almost feel a drip of terror, like the ghost of a prickle along the pads of my fingertips, tugging at my belly. The new flavor from La Croix, Existential Fear! I had no idea if some giant 50-foot shark fin was cutting a neat path through the water in the distance- or perhaps a siren simpers above the water- could be just a conga line of sea turtles, but- I could almost hear something calling, muffled and dying like the swan song of tinnitus, a desperate note of mourning from your cochlea. I think this is called saudade.

          But that’s not the word I’m looking for, either, because I still haven’t completely described this feeling. It’s saudade, too, with a splash of horror to it after I realized something, slowly rising up and walking toward the railing of the upper deck. That call I almost felt, I nearly heard, wasn’t coming from the inky lacuna where a giant tentacle might be waving at me. That call came from inside of me, something far older than the instinct to recoil from poisonous berries, and older than the urge to freeze and shrink when hunted. It beseeched me to return, to join- or more accurately to be returned- leave this false time and these false pretenses to be taken gently by the hands. To be held in phantasmal arms as my flesh is peeled off my body like a sweet grape, and hands gently slip in between the seams of muscles to slough them off, leaving sticky bones to be polished clean with cloth and care. To return to a pure state of being in an uncontaminated dimension, a collective of raw sensations beyond human understanding, forbidden to all mankind. 

          Soft footsteps somewhere behind me shattered the morbidly gorgeous dream I’d been crafting. I lifted my head, unaware that it had been dipping lower and lower to let me stare directly into the darkest point of the sea. Had I been standing out here too long, I wondered suddenly? But if anyone had missed me, they could have found me easily– there’s only so many places to go on this ship. I need to find this word, just out of reach, before I can move . . .

          It’s not l’appel du vide– there’s no piece of me that wanted to jump into the home of tiger sharks and manta rays, or anything permanent like that. It’s not a call to join the void. It’s a call to join something much simpler, not dark or light or hot or cold or anything human, like that . . . it’s not a pull like the moon upon the tides or fingers upon a shirt hem or a scent upon a memory. It’s a reminder of what I’ve lost in exchange for sight, and smell, and income taxes. It’s my soul, recycled over ages, tired of the merry-go-round and so very desperate to return to a thing I cannot describe, cannot name, will never know on a conscious level, but will miss in a way only atoms can fathom. It’s a feeling I only ever got before on a lonely night pressing my face into a tearstained pillow, and once more when my headlights cut a path along a dark road, and now apparently in the expanse of the ocean. What’s almost worse than that, is the feeling that grows upon its heels, the feeling of a door closing and your last chance to become one again will be lost and you’ll never return there, the place our pitiful human languages can only call ‘home.’ You’ll search for its approximation on this mortal plane forever, but the chances to get that are closing as your spirit becomes encumbered with the weight of disappointment, regret, and fear of missing more chances. This feeling, I know quite well, is called Torschlusspanik.

          But what’s the word for all of it? What’s the word that takes these sorrows and secret, terrible thrills, and holds them firmly yet gently in its sonorous shallows? 

          I took in a deep breath, and felt the ache of air held in too tight, lungs expanded a little too far; I returned to the feeling of clammy hands moistening the railing, the deck my feet shuffled along, and suddenly I felt thirst. The humanity of that need was the final nail to anchor myself to this world. 

          I’ve thought of a word. It’s not close, not nearly, but it’s a word that allows me to release my death grip on the railing, and take a step back.

          “Mojito,” I mumble to the writhing soul inside me, turning to walk to a bar that’s still open on the ship. “I’ll ask them to double the rum.”

Danny Fantom is from Florida, with most of their personality made up of Halloween. They’ve had work published with The Daily Drunk Magazine, Rejection Letters, Defunct Magazine, and other publications including a personal “blog” on Vocal. They are on Twitter currently, @ThrillandFear, where you can find them retweeting pictures of desserts, horror movies, and sunsets.

© Variant Literature Inc 2023