A Steamboat to the Edge of the World

Steamboat by Gustave Le Gray
“Steamboat” by Gustave Le Gray

“God, why’s it so hot?”

“And this wind…it’s sinful!”

“What a perilous expedition we endure!”

It was a rancid day, to be sure. The sun beat upon the three ladies’ bonnets, nipping the tops of their ears and bruising the tips of their noses. Wind whipped their curls about their cheeks, and they joked that they were bound to turn over like tumbleweeds into the sea. They sat in white wicker chairs on the deck of the SS Sophronia, with cocktails in hand and gossip in mouth, their talk fluxing from complaints of the weather to devious fits of giggles. Behind each stood an attendant extending a parasol, and a lone fiddler scraped away at his instrument before them. Constance claimed that it was the perfect tune for wine, winking, and journeying to the edge of the world.

“Did you expect the weather to be so harsh?” Clementine asked.

Cordelia snorted. “When Martha — that incompetent cow — made the trip, she had nothing but praise for the climate. ‘Mild skies and still water, and then the drop was but a dream…’  Please!”

“Oh, but I’m certain that once we get to the edge it’ll be much nicer,” Constance said. She pointed to a line in her pamphlet. “See, it says here that upon arrival, the tourist will ‘be wrapped in a balmy breeze and pleasant aroma as the insignificance of his puny existence is thrust upon him.’ I think that sounds quite agreeable.”

Cordelia plucked a deviled egg from the platter in her attendant’s hand and popped it between her lips. “It’s common knowledge that Martha’s a filthy liar,” she said between mouthfuls,  “but I’m still determined to have a better time than she.”

“I’m sure we all will, dear,” Constance said, and she rested her pamphlet in her lap.

The SS Sophronia chugged along, belching mushrooms of smoke into the sky. She was a fine steamboat, all polished wood and bright paint, with a hardy paddle that scooped up the sea. And what a restless sea it was — for as the wind blew stronger, the waves peaked higher and the deck dipped lower. The fiddler’s bow skittered across his strings with each dip, and one attendant’s grip on his tray suffered such shakiness that the Arab salad was tossed across the deck. The ladies were too astir with excitement to notice.

A serious look folded into the lines of Clementine’s brow. “Suppose we fall off?”

Cordelia examined her nail bed. “Off what, dear?”

“Well, the edge.”

“Nonsense. This is a civilized affair, an elite destination. I’m sure they’ve set up ropes.”

Clementine didn’t seem so certain. “But I’ve heard of ships that get too close, and then the water sweeps them into the void, never to be seen again. What if we’re swallowed by oblivion?”

Pish,” Cordelia said with a flick of her gloved hand. “That’s just the common crop, poppet. We are on a luxury steamboat, with luxury service. We’ve paid good money to see the end of the world, not be sucked into it.”

“Just wait, it’ll be grand,” Constance said, and she once again quoted from her pamphlet. “‘At the edge, the visitor will be offered a pair of binoculars so that he can peer into the nothingness and search for meaning. Complimentary drinks will be served as atmospheric music is played.’”

“Oh, that does sound grand,” Clementine said, a smile perching upon her lips.

“Not if this horrid heat doesn’t let up!” Cordelia snapped her fingers forcefully and turned to her attendant. “You! Manservant! Raise and shade; you’re shaking about something dreadful!”

“Apologies, ma’am,” the man mumbled, and he lifted the parasol higher.

The swollen sun dangled low over the smokestacks of the boat, growing more bloated with each passing minute. But through all the wind and the heat and the rocking, the ladies still talked both small and large. Eventually, the fiddler’s bow was snatched from his hand by the wind, and he rushed into the cabin for a new instrument.

Constance gripped the laces of her bonnet as the wind howled about her neck. “Think of it, ladies! Many a scholar has travelled to the edge to question his greater purpose, to search for a god looming in the black! And us — we are to be one of those great seekers of truth!”

“Yes, but do you think we’ll be able to take home a souvenir?” Clementine asked.

The olive in Cordelia’s cocktail rattled against the glass. “Lord, we had better!” she exclaimed. “Else I will have nothing to shove in Martha’s insufferable face.”

Constance’s laugh was gobbled up by the roar of the waves. “But honestly! What a quest we’ve undertaken!”

“Really, I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” Cordelia said with a shrug.

Clementine clasped her hands in her lap. “I do hope I can bring home something.”

It was another tumultuous half hour before the ladies realized that the horizon was drawing closer and closer. “We are fast approaching!” Clementine squealed. “How dramatic!” was Constance’s reaction. Cordelia even tutted a “well, well.”

Then they were upon it.

Somewhere in the unimaginable deep, far beneath the steamboat and far beneath the quaking sea, a beast growled. Their bones shook. Their teeth rattled. It was a thunder that melted their very marrow — the sound of an ocean throwing itself off the edge of the world. They saw a waterfall, but a waterfall that fell into nothingness.

The sunburnt sky filtered off into streaks of orange and smoke and obscurity. What unfolded before them, past the edge of the spilling sea — well, the girls could not put words to it. It was expansive yet singular, empty yet somehow aware. They would need to get a more magnified look before they could ponder ‘the insignificance of their puny existences’.

The steamboat’s engine shuddered to a halt just before the bow could slide off the rushing edge. Indeed, there were ropes of red velvet that stretched across the brink for as far as the eye could see. A bell clanged from the mast, and the ladies were ushered to their feet by the attendants. As they were served champagne and caviar on toast, the fiddler returned with a new bow and the captain emerged from his cabin to ask them how they had fared the journey. They chatted for a bit over the rumble of the falls, commenting on the majesty of the oblivion that stretched before them. “Now, I’ll let you get to your sightseeing,” the captain finally said, and he left them on the deck with a pair of binoculars. The ladies handed their glasses to the attendants, and turned eagerly to look over the edge. Clementine was the first to lean over the railing and press the binoculars to her eyes.

“Oh, God!” she soon cried.

“Darling, what do you see?” Cordelia asked.

The poor girl stuttered. “Th-there’s…there’s…nothing!”

“Nothing?” Constance squinted into the void. “That can’t be right. Define nothing.”

“Oh, there’s nothing! Nothing at all! It’s all empty!”

“Give me that,” Cordelia said sharply. She snatched the binoculars from Clementine’s fingers and pressed the eyecups to her sockets.

Constance rested a hand on her shoulder. “What is it really?”

“Why don’t you believe me?” Clementine wept. She shook her head, back and forth, up and down, thrashing violently. “There’s nothing out there, there’s no purpose, nothing exists —”

“Have some propriety, girl!” Cordelia said with a huff. “I see…now wait a minute…I see…well, it’s almost like a glass, like a large mirror. And there’s me…and there you are, Constance, and Clementine too, and…” Her voice darkened. “…and Martha — the loathsome goat — and my mother and uncle and the estate and everyone! Everything! I see everything, our world, reflected and renewed!” She brought the binoculars down, revealing an agape mouth.

“That’s silly!” Constance said. “You can’t see everything the same as it is here. Likewise you can’t see nothing!”

Cordelia turned a taut expression on Constance. “Then do tell me, dear, since you’re so educated on the matter: what is one meant to see when she peers off the edge of the world? For I tell you, I see everything!”

“Mercy, mercy! There’s nothing!” came Clementine’s cry.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Constance said over the younger girl’s hysterics. “You’re supposed to find meaning, to see the truth. Your mind is to be enlightened! And everything can’t be meaningful, and nothing can’t have purpose!”

Cordelia sniffed the air, and handed off the binoculars to Constance. “By all means, search for your truth. Enlighten your mind. I eagerly await your insight.”

“I shall!” Constance said, and she glared into the lenses.

The SS Sophronia buckled beneath their feet, and off towards the stern, Clementine could be heard moaning as she slid across the deck. Cordelia and Constance gripped hard to the railing, but the three attendants and fiddler tumbled to their knees, champagne glasses shattering and fiddle strings snapping.

“I’m waiting, dear!” Cordelia shouted over the turbulence. “What is your scholarly conjecture?”

Constance frowned into the binoculars. “I — I can’t see clearly…”

NOOOOOOTHIIIIIING….!” Clementine’s wail was made distorted by the wind.

“Isn’t that rich!” Cordelia’s bonnet ripped from her hair and spiraled over the edge, but she paid it no mind. “You — you who have all the answers — you can’t even understand what lies before your own eyes!”

Constance flung her arms wide, and the binoculars went sailing into the abyss. “And you!  You see everything as you want to see it, because you’re soft of mind and vain of heart. You see yourself and your affluence, and it has no meaning, but you relish in it!”

“Better to relish in what I know than to shriek at the prospect of nothing!”

“How dare you drag Clementine into this! She’s simple!”

Ma’am.” Constance felt a hand grapple her ankle. She looked down from her outrage to see that one of the attendants had crawled across the slick deck to her. “Ma’am, we must turn back now,” he gasped out. “Captain’s orders. If you please, come under the awning now, ma’am.”

Cordelia heaved a sigh. “Oh, if we must.”

“Thank you, good sir,” Constance said curtly. She stepped over him, and Cordelia followed. “Come Clementine!” she called across to the stern.

It took a while for the attendants to procure new chairs (for the old wicker ones had been swept off the deck into the sea), but soon the three ladies were sitting again, and the steamboat’s engine purred to life. The horizon lagged further and further away, and so did the girls’ spirits.

“I didn’t even get a souvenir,” Clementine pouted.

Cordelia downed the contents of her glass in one shot, and grimaced. “Martha will be pleased, I’m sure. I can hear her petulant voice already. ‘Oh, Cordie, it’s a shame that you didn’t bring back a piece of nothing.’ Or is it…everything?” She shuddered.

Constance stared blankly into her wrinkled pamphlet. “Oh look. There’s to be a reception afterwards. Tea and biscuits with the captain. How grand.”

Clementine blinked up into the sky. “God, why’s it so hot?”

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

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