The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy
By Rich Larson
11 August 2014
In Baltic waters, gnashed by dark waves, there stood an old oil platform on rusted legs. It was populated as rigs always are, by coarse men young and strong whose faces soon overgrew with bristle and bloat. Cedric was one of these.
He’d fled his father in New Zealand, then a pregnant girlfriend in Perth, arriving on the rig with insomniac eyes and an inchoate smile and a bank account in need of filling. In the pocket of his dull blue coverall, he carried an old Kindle with a spider-webbed screen and a Polaroid photograph of Violet when she was still slim and still laughed.
His days were filled by the slow geometry of pipefitting, the bone-deep clank of machinery, the shrieks and swoops of soot-stained gulls. At night, when the running lights cast wavery orange on the black water and a sea-breeze scoured at the omnipresent stench of oil, Cedric thought the rig was not so bad. At night he read Moby Dick and anything else vaguely nautical. At night, Violet was blurred beautiful by the webcam window, distended curve of her stomach cropped neatly away, and he nearly loved her again.
Some nights, Cedric stayed up top for hours to watch the starless sky and the ink-black sea. Dregs from this or that leak shimmered around the derrick’s legs. Scabs of tangled plastic bobbed between them. Some nights, Cedric thought he saw a shape moving in the water, but he knew all fish had fled long ago.
Long months stacked on months, and the weekend before the fresh crew was brought in, everyone shattered themselves on whiskey hidden under bunks and coke stashed in jacket linings. Cedric copped a dime-bag of weed from Biggs, who wore Arsenal gear religiously but was otherwise sound, and sawed himself a bong from an empty two-litre.
Biggs stayed for a few hoots, then it was only Cedric and the gurgle of bong-water, the gasp-catch of a held lungful, the electronic melody of a Skype dial tone. Any day now, love, Violet said, when she appeared. Cedric nodded blearily, leaking smoke from chapped lips. She showed him, then, and it was impossibly pale and round and sized like the moon.
Cedric cut the line, because that was more merciful, wasn’t it, than telling her he would go anywhere but back to her in Perth. He clumped up top, through drinking songs and flitting cards and eruptions of laughter. He went to the rail with his head full of helium. The icy pitch was thick, thick below him.
And there: a gleaming face, ivory-white. Cedric thought to call for help, thought the drifting body was crew drunk and toppled overboard, but the face made no sound, only blinked oil-black eyes, and so he knew he was imagining it. He went back below with his feet heavy as stones.
In the morning, Cedric found the operations coordinator and told him he needed an extension on his contract. The OC listened through a hard liquor hangover as Cedric badgered, Cedric argued, and in the end he agreed so he’d be left to his silence and Tylenol. The old crew pushed off. Fresh crew came in. Cedric had an empty bunk in his room, and he found a new dealer for weed—none of Biggs’ laced shit, either.
Skype slipped off into angry emails, then nothing at all. Cedric worked hard during the day, building aches into every part of his body, and stayed up most of the night. He read Auden and then anything else vaguely elegiac. It made the dark sea friendlier.
Then, one night, he saw her. She was adrift, flotsam, pale limbs splayed like a starfish, hair ebbing tendrils around her head. Cedric had never seen a corpse, only dreamed one, and he found the sight paralyzed him. Then she revolved in the water and began pulling languid strokes towards the rig.
Cedric watched with needles up his neck, wondered dimly if he should try to fish her out with a lifebuoy. Her face was angled towards his now and he recognized her wide liquid eyes. Cedric eased himself over the barrier and onto the rungs of a maintenance ladder, swearing when his palms stung against the cold metal. He climbed lower; she swam closer, smooth strokes, no drowning man’s flail.
Are you all right, he croaked to her. He scuttled down until the dark water licked his waders and realized he’d left the lifebuoy. She was right below him now, treading in place and staring at him with eyes deep as the well. Are you all right, he said again, because he had nothing else to say.
Cold was the word that tumbled off her lips. She reached; he reached, to her hand of slick rubber. She was impossibly light as he lifted her up the ladder, as if every one of her bones was hollow, but she clung to his back with fierce fingers. Her naked weight shivered against him.
On deck, Cedric shrugged out of his thermal and handed it over. She watched the bunched fabric for a moment, then slipped it slowly, clumsily, over her head. As she pulled her wet black hair from this side of her neck to the other, Cedric realized she was beautiful. Bee-stung lips, immaculate skin, that bone structure that begged him to touch her.
There was no doctor on the rig. Cedric knew there was a former EMT, and a half-dozen men with First Response, but there was no doctor and he felt, deeply, that if he passed her on to anybody else he would never see her again. He almost didn’t hear her when she said, I need some sleep.
I would, too, Christ. Cedric helped her to the door and dragged his card through the mag-lock. The iron stairwell was empty. Her feet slapped wetly on the way down to his cabin; Cedric hoped nobody was up to hear it. Sleep here, he told her, clearing his Acer and a tangle of laundry off the bottom bunk. Sleep here and I’ll call for someone.
She plunged into the mattress, strings cut. Cedric watched the slack line of her spine, the curve of her ass, and thought thoughts. His porn bored him lately and Violet’s last webcam teasing was months removed. In his head he slipped into the bunk with her and she grabbed at him with those fierce fingers, with her lips and teeth.
Her breathing evened. Cedric reached for the handset, thinking maybe the company man, maybe his OC, but stopped when he saw the webbing stretched taut between her long fingers. He knelt close, studying a tracery of blue veins like canals.
When her dark eyes flicked open, he jumped. She smiled with gray needle teeth. Then Cedric blinked, and her teeth were Crest-commercial white again, and when he looked at her hand the slim fingers were unbound. Piss off, she whispered, closing her eyes.
Three hours on, in a raw red dawn, she had not vanished and Cedric had not much moved. It wasn’t until his phone rattled out 5:45 AM on the dresser that he roused. His body dressed on automatic; his mind was still numbed.
Stay here, Cedric said to her snores, and he went to work. The new crew knew Cedric as the quiet type; today he was dead silent in thought. He’d seen her before, he was sure of that now. Faded on Biggs’ weed, sick from a strange sort of fear, he’d seen her face peering up from the black water.
When they breaked for food, Cedric half-walked, half-jogged back down to his cabin. The hallucination was lounging on his bottom bunk, brushing crumbs of granola bar off the sleeve of his thermal. She looked up as he entered.
Where did you come from, he asked. She balled the wrapper in her fist and dropped it onto the floor. From the sea, she said. Like everybody does.
I mean, before you were in the water.
Imagine I was in a uterus, before, she said. Can I wash now?
Cedric’s eyes caught on the pristine edge of her collarbone. Not unless you want to shower with a dozen blokes. She raised one dark eyebrow and shook her head. Tonight, then, Cedric said. He stumped towards the door, then paused. I’m Cedric, by the way. She rolled her eyes up as if debating. Volkova. Cedric nodded, and let the door clank shut behind him.
That evening he brought her spaghetti Bolognese reheated in the kitchenette microwave, not chancing the stove, and two cans of Coke. When she opened the door he found she’d dressed herself more thoroughly, which squirmed him with relief and disappointment. The trousers were oversized but held by shoelace.
She ate slowly and grimly, like someone preparing for a long march, and Cedric asked no more questions, skimming Hans Christian Andersen instead. By eleven, he knew the showers were empty. I haven’t told anyone, he said, not sure if it mattered. But I don’t think you should be here, either.
Do you think I’m a mermaid, she asked, and gave a soft scornful laugh. Cedric draped two towels over his shoulder and led her quietly to the showers. Fluorescents flickered on over cold fractured puddles. Cedric pointed her to the furthest nozzle, difficult to see from the doorway, and felt a distant embarrassment about the grout creeping between the bathroom tiles.
He turned on his own shower, listening despite himself for the tell-tale slither of her borrowed clothes coming away. When steam started to billow, he stripped but kept his briefs, as he did in the presence of company, and stepped into the hot spray. Leaving those on, are you. Cedric didn’t turn his head to look at her, but he put a deliberate finger up to his lips. She was silent then, and for a moment he imagined she wasn’t there at all, that it was only him and the sweat and grime sliding off his skin in dirty tendrils.
Then she started to retch. Cedric stared straight ahead as long as possible, but the ragged sound was impossible to ignore. He turned and saw her jackknifed over, shivering, heaving, and the gleaming black vomit she’d left on the floor was unmistakeable. I live under the platform, she rasped, as if to explain. You need a hospital, Cedric said, blindly thrusting a towel towards her.
She insisted she didn’t, and a few minutes later they stole quickly and quietly back to the cabin. Cedric waited for a roughneck to slouch into the corridor with cigarette and lighter, but their path was empty, completely empty. I saw you one night, he said when they were back in the room. Didn’t I?
That’s why I decided to come up the ladder, she said. You looked so damn lonely. She trailed soft fingers along Cedric’s wrist; he felt his cock thicken against his thigh.
Not because you’re sick?
Maybe a bit of that, too. Tired of eating garbage. She peeled off the towel and slipped into the bottom bunk without another word, making herself a cocoon of his staled sheets. You’re not a mermaid, Cedric decided aloud, thumbing the light-switch, clambering past her. Something else. He tugged off silently as he could in the upper bunk.
She stayed. During the day she was holed up in the cabin—there wasn’t much in the way of diversion, since she didn’t seem to understand the laptop, but she did devour the thick dusty stack of maintenance manuals and guidebooks that had gone months untouched. Cedric, for his part, wolfed down wikis of Irish mythology. It led to one speed-fueled night spent gutting the cabin, searching high and low for an oil-slicked pelt, while she watched and laughed her soft contemptuous laugh that tingled like morphine.
Most nights they snuck to the showers, or up to the deck. She was happiest near water, where her eyes seemed blacker and her hands more like bony fins, though when Cedric brought her microwaved mahi-mahi she preferred the lasagne.
Every so often she would heave up the black vomit, and sometimes Cedric was there to hold back her hair and mutter small nothings the way he had back when Violet first had the morning sickness. Afterwards they would sit together, sometimes with a cloud of vapor between them, sometimes only words.
She asked him about the work, about the faulty water injector, the company man’s blow habit, and then one night about where he’d grown up, about New Zealand and about his family. I hated my father, he said around a hit, and she said, that’s original. He laughed, eyes pink and glassy, then showed her the Maori tattoos down his back. She showed him the no tattoos down her front, leaned in, kissed hard.
As they see-saw stumbled towards the bunk, her hand found the spiral ridge of scar tissue under his briefs. Oh. And then Cedric had to explain, as he had to Violet so long ago, about the boiling coffee he hadn’t watched, being glued to Action Man on the telly instead, and how when his father found the mess he turned the electric range back on and shucked off Cedric’s trousers.
He explained about standing there, wailing and snuffling, watching the rusty element turn slowly bright orange. He explained about the sizzle and the gut-sick smell. She still fucked him, fiercely, urgently. Their writhing shadow was aquatic.
Later, in the bruised hours of the night, Cedric’s heavy eyes opened on her rooting through his coverall. She had the Polaroid of Violet held between two fingers like a cigarette. She’s pretty. Cedric nodded. Still warm with post-coital chemicals, he told her about the move to Perth and the pregnancy and the way Violet sang to herself if she thought he was still asleep.
And that’s why you live here? To earn enough money for three, I mean.
Yeah, said Cedric, then, to change subjects: Why did you live under the rig for all those years? She gave that morphine-yellow laugh. Stubborn, I imagine, she said. Figured to find nothing better. His eyes were closed again when she draped herself over him like a long-coat, breathed secrets into the skin of his neck.
Things became different. She was always restless now, jittery. She’d worked out how to use the cracked Kindle and Cedric found Kierkegaard and Ibsen on its screen. In the night she took his card and slipped out of the cabin; he knew by the wet footprints and damp kisses. He dreamed of her slicing through the black water, diving and turning somersaults through metal struts. She smiled less often and too widely.
One night, with her head against his ribcage, she told him she was leaving. Cedric was unsurprised in a hollow way, reminded of another night, of Violet’s cigarette-scorched table and rolls of gauze.
It wasn’t because I was stubborn, she said. I lived down there in the muck because I knew it well, and I was scared of cleaner things.
Cedric clenched and unclenched his teeth. I’m not here because of the money, he said. Not anymore. He told her, then, about the night before he left. Six, seven bottles of Swan deep, and Violet had been looking for an argument, needing one last one, but instead of arguing how he usually did he shoved her and her scalp split on the edge of the table. A baby’s head is soft for months, he said. Because of the brain growing.
She put her hand down to his hidden scar. You’ll be nothing like him, she said. Oh, Cedric. The air we breathe is stormy, stormy. Isn’t it?
He tried and tried but couldn’t remember her name. At 1:53 AM she kissed his chin, and at 1:55 AM she was leading the way up the iron stairs one last time. The starless sky was sea-colored, the inky sea was sky-colored. She stripped naked before she descended the ladder. Come for a swim, she suggested through chattering teeth, raising one webbed hand. Cedric raised a brow and shook his head.
She laughed, first soft and low, then shrill and barking. At the support strut Cedric watched her untie a floating garbage bag and pull something slick and heavy over her head. There was a rending sound of flesh and bone finding new places, or maybe old ones, and then she was a dark shape cutting through dark water, away from the rig, away from the running lights. And then, she was nothing at all. Cedric calculated the time difference. He went back to his cabin and called, called, called.
The next day, the water injector quit working completely. Cedric wrote and rewrote his emails. The day after that, compressor problems. Cedric tried her number until the Skype dial-tone was ricocheting through his skull. Pumps stalled, electronics bugged; everyone agreed it was suspect. Cedric’s key-card had been many places it shouldn’t have, but so had a dozen others that had gone mysteriously missing.
The day Violet answered was the day the rig evacuated, mutters of permanent shutdown following the second electrical fire. She picked up furious, how couldn’t she be furious, but by the time the boats were loading she promised to let Cedric call again, and before the line cut he heard the small voice that would carry him over the Baltic waves.