THE LONGEST AKA'S DOLPHIN TRIBE ever stays in one area is when the females give birth. All through their history, as long as the legends of their Wise Ones reached back, their calves had been born in the warm waters that wash the two lonely rocks in the equatorial mid-Atlantic.
Aka and the Wise Ones, in the tale-telling times, transmit holographic images to the rest of the 143 bottle-nosed dolphins in the tribe of how their home had once been, before the seas rose and covered all but the two tiny islets, the very top of the highest peak of the beautiful land that had been Atlantis, the home-island of the Sea Kings. The Atlanteans had been different from modern Man, "say" the Wise Ones. True, they had fished, but they had never harmed or purposely murdered the dolphins. On the contrary, the Sea Kings had learned to communicate with them, and had included the dolphins in their pantheon of gods, and in return the dolphins had herded the fish for the Atlanteans and accompanied the Sea Kings on their voyages of trade and exploration.
Eventually, after eons of time, the waters had swiftly risen and it had been time for the last of the Sea Kings to leave once-lovely Atlantis in the warm seas. On their long graceful ships with purple sails the Sea Kings had figureheads of dolphins cast in gold, and as they hauled their anchors for the last time their high priest had made a vow that when they reached their new home in the inland sea, they would raise a temple which would be the new center of the world and they would name it in honor of their sea gods. Eh-ee, the name of the temple, had come down in the dolphin legends through twelve thousand years and twelve thousand treks around the North Atlantic Ocean. It was the closest the dolphins could come to pronouncing the human word Delphi.
Each August, when the calves are two to three months old, the dolphins of Aka's tribe leave the lonely rocks, now known to humans as St. Paul's, and make their way, by taste and their guiding stars, into the west-flowing Guinea Current, warm after its long traipse up the west African coast. They do not hurry. The fish scouts and the shoal herders range up to a hundred miles either side of the main body of 112 dolphins. After two months in the warm Guinea Current, they join the North Equatorial Current, which flows down the coast of Africa from the north and swings west across the ocean to the West Indies. The tribe roams around the West Indies Islands for three months; there the fish abound from October to December. Then it is time to move northeast, into the Gulf Stream. It takes the tribe four months to make its way east across the North Atlantic, ranging north almost as far as Iceland, to their traditional landfall of Cape Finisterre, the northwest tip of Spain. From then on, as they continue south, is their mating time, from Finisterre to the Moroccan coast.
From Finisterre, the dolphins steadily make their way south during March and April, south in the cool Portugal current, in a vast area which extends right down the coast of Portugal, across the herring, cod, and pilchard-teeming Straits of Gibraltar, right down to the coast of Mauritania, where the shoals of mullet darken the oceans like undersea clouds. They do not swim along in a direct route, but range as far west as Madeira and the Canary Islands, and sometimes they even visit into the Mediterranean as far east as the Balearic Islands and Corsica; but, by their ancient law, no further.
By mid-April each year the tribe has plowed its way through the Cape Verde Islands and, always with several females heavy with calf from the previous year's mating, heads southwest by south, right across the Guinea Current again, in a line as straight as an arrow, guided as always by their taste and the stars, back to the two lonely warm islets and the safe inlet, which is all that remains of Atlantis, which has always been their ancestral home, ever since the dawning of their recorded history twenty million years ago.
Conan reread the telegram, picked up the phone, and as he dialed, reminded himself not to mention the name Josephine. Outside, the New York traffic roared.
"Ruth," he said in a slight Scottish burr, "I want to see you urgently ... no, I don't want to discuss it on the phone ... I have to go away for a while..."
He listened for a moment, then he said, "Okay, Formelli's then, at seven." He waited for another minute, listening. Then he smiled and murmured, "I love you, too," and hung up the phone.
Conan picked up the cable again and scanned it. His hand shook as he read it, then he groaned quietly to himself and let the cable fall onto his desk. He was in corduroy pants and shirt sleeves. He was of medium build, sinewy yet not thin, with thinning dark hair and trimly shaped graying beard. He held his head slightly thrust forward, as if he were sniffing the air. His gray eyes were now half-closed in shock and sorrow.
For a few minutes he stared out of his fifth-floor apartment window at the Seventh Avenue traffic rumbling below. As Conan stood at the window he held both feet planted apart, as if he were on the deck of a ship at sea. Every move he made, even as he turned his head to look along the avenue, was as decisive as if it had been considered beforehand. He had the look of a man who is accustomed to making up his mind and acting upon his decision--the kind of man whose obvious inner strength is, when all is well, resented by weaker beings. He was the rare kind of person who was disbelieved in by those who had no inkling of the furnace in which Conan's strength had been forged.
In his mind's eye, Conan saw Josephine and Shaughnessy again as he had two years previously: Josephine shapely and trim, sleek as ever; Shaughnessy, a grinning, bald wiry leprechaun, burned by the ocean sun. It had been at Annapolis, at the town quay. Shaughnessy had just anchored the forty-four-foot sloop after a four-thousand-mile passage from England, cleared U.S. Customs, and had rowed ashore to meet Conan again for the first time in six years.
He and Shaughnessy had drunk the afternoon away together at a crowded bar on the waterfront. On principle neither of them drank at sea and Shaughnessy had been thirty-two days dry, Conan remembered. He picked up the cable again, read it, sighed, and looked around his tiny, grubby, too expensive apartment, at the tatty furniture, most of it salvaged from the street. His gaze wandered over the piles of books on the floor and he glared for a few seconds at the half-finished book-typescript, which, like a greedy, insatiable stepchild, sat accusingly on his desk. Conan took another quick glance at the cable:
SHAUGHNESSY KILLED ACCIDENT STOP QUERY CAN YOU SKIPPER SLOOP JOSEPHINE LISBON GLOBE AROUND WORLD RACE COMMENCES SECOND APRIL REPLY URGENTEST STOP MIKE HOUGHTON.
Conan picked up the phone.
"Western Union," he said after a few seconds. "Yes, a cable ... international ... to England ... Mike Houghton, Southern Counties Ocean Cruising Club, Sandleston..." Conan spelled out the name of the town for the operator. "England ... the text of the message is 'yes stop arrive Lisbon Friday twenty-seventh March stop Bill Conan.'"
Then he headed for his travel agent's office.
When Conan arrived at Formelli's restaurant it was six-forty. The place was not yet packed. He ordered a Watney's Red Barrel beer--Formelli's stocked brews from several different countries. Conan looked around the restaurant. Most of the customers were young people who, Conan guessed, were students, but there were a few older people, mostly men, regulars, who always seemed to be either reading or writing as they ate. Conan supposed that they, too, were writers, though there was no way he could know for sure. Most people tended to keep to themselves in Manhattan, even in Greenwich Village.
While he waited for his beer, Conan looked around the restaurant and noted a couple of good-looking girls. He delved into his inside jacket pocket, brought out the airline tickets, and inspected them. He started to make mental notes on the clothes and other gear he would need to take with him. Suddenly, as if startled, he looked up, his head turned toward the restaurant doorway.
There are magic moments in the lives of lovers. For some they are rare, for others not. Suddenly, for no obvious reason, there is an awareness, a private certainty, that the other is close by, no matter what the time or place, nor how many other people may be present. There is a quickening of the senses; colors brighten, noises soften, shapes sharpen, life is kinder, strangers tend to fade into an amorphous background that is all their own. Suddenly, almost involuntarily, and yet perhaps not, one's head turns, one's pulse quickens, one's eyes focus, and there is one's beloved. So it was, at precisely three minutes to seven in the evening, in the crowded restaurant, between Bill Conan and Ruth Fleming, he sitting at a wall table at the far inner end of the room, and she peering over the shoulders of recent arrivals waiting around the doorway for a table.
Conan smiled as Ruth edged her way past the coterie at the entrance, her eyes fixed on Conan all the while, and made her way to him. He started to rise, she shook her head.
Conan glanced at his wristwatch. "Early," he said. It was a private joke between them. He reached for the parcel she was carrying and put it beside his chair.
"Don't drop my skates, Conan," she said. Her voice was husky and low. She leaned over the corner of the table and lightly brushed his beard with her lips.
She was three inches shorter than Conan, about five feet eight, but her slenderness made her appear taller. She looked to be in her middle twenties, and only the self-assured grace with which she opened her gray coat and shucked it over her shoulders for Conan to take from her gave any indication of her true age of thirty-four.
She wore her natural ash-blond hair shoulder length. Her face was peculiarly American--middle American. It was a mite too long to be considered classical. Her cheekbones were high enough to be German, yet her green eyes and brow were purely Irish, while her nose, very slightly patrician, and her complexion, were straight out of the English Home Counties. As her head moved and the light touched and defined the planes and angles of her facial structure, so, to Conan's eyes, she seemed to change into, and back from, and yet again into, three different women, while always remaining the same person. Both the roaming sailor and the writer in Conan were well aware of the quicksilver alchemy of Ruth's appearance. As he watched her sit, he remembered how sometimes, in the companionable moments after they had made love, he told her long, rambling, fanciful tales about her ancestry, and she laughed softly and held him closer to her. Those were the rare moments when the hard veneer which her ten years in New York City had imposed on her dissolved and her almost-naive middle-western innocence--openness might be a better way to think of it, Conan thought--was exposed.
"So what's happening?" Ruth asked quietly. She placed a hand on Conan's arm. She wore a tailored suit, gray with green trimmings, for work at the bank office during the week.
Conan reached into his pocket, extracted the cable, and passed it to her.
Ruth quickly donned a pair of fashionably oversized glasses, and read it, twice. She tried to stop herself from saying, "And you've accepted." It was a flat statement.
"There really wasn't time to discuss--I had to get a cable away fast, so that Houghton would get it in time..." He trailed off meekly. His accent had the soft brogue of a northern Briton who has been most of his life at sea, but after four years in the States, Conan's vowels were beginning to flatten out American style.
"How long's the race?" Ruth asked in a small voice, as she replaced the glasses in her purse.
"It's the Sunday Globe race.... There's a fifty-thousand-pound prize--"
Ruth broke in, as a waitress, a young "resting" actress, arrived to take their orders. "What's that in real money?" She was smiling.
By the time the waitress had left, Conan had done the calculation. "A hundred and eighteen thousand dollars ... that's the prize," he said, as he lifted his beer glass. He thought of the other prizes--the visions, the obscurities, the revelations; the profundity, the finality of the sea, the way in which the sea renders remote the cares and wastes of the land. That, to Conan, was the greatest of her prizes--the one worth all the discomforts, the perils and dangers the sea so slyly hid from the unwary.
Ruth was silent. For a moment she drummed her fingers on the table and stared at Conan. She reflected on the way his soul seemed to stir in his eyes when he looked at her, and how they changed to granite when he did not; how the light and warmth left when he looked around him, away from her.
She said, "But what about your writing, Bill? You've written four books since you came to New York.... You're becoming better known.... Why do you have to go on this stupid race? How long is it for, anyhow?"
Conan finished his beer. He firmly placed the glass on the table and looked directly into Ruth's eyes. "It's round the world, nonstop, Lisbon to Lisbon," he said. His tone was boyishly defensive.
There was dead silence between them for a full minute. Ruth opened her mouth slightly as she stared at Conan. She winced and said, "Say that again, Conan ... slowly. My adrenaline is getting in my ears."
Conan regarded her without expression for a moment. He started to say, "Round the--" His voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat.
"Yes, come on, Bill."
"It's a tremendous chance for me to..." He hesitated.
"Prove yourself?" Ruth asked quietly, sharply. "Jesus Christ, Conan, you're fifty-six years old. You've just about done everything. You've proved yourself time and again. All your life you've been proving yourself. What was it ... ordinary seaman to lieutenant, Royal bloody Navy...?"
"Please, Ruth," Conan murmured as the waitress set their plates on the table. There was a silence until the waitress left. Ruth picked up her fork. She left her knife on the table, as Americans do, until she needed it.
Quietly she said, "All that time at sea ... in small sailing boats ... how many years was it?"
"Twenty-two ... and fourteen in the service..."
"And you still haven't had enough?"
"That was mostly delivery trips," he said. "This race is something really special..." Again his voice trailed off.
There was another painful silence between them.
Ruth thought of how, after almost two decades of disappointment, she had at last found a man whom she could respect as well as truly love. She envisioned, vaguely, the faces of her ex-husband and some of her previous lovers, but they were mere blurs in her consciousness. For the most they had been either childish, vain, or jealous. To her, Bill Conan had more personality, more intelligence, and certainly more good humor and affection in his little finger than the rest had among them.
Conan felt again the hopelessness of the years he had been alone; a creeping inner coldness, the old orphaning. As he looked at Ruth he wished to God he could take her with him. That was impossible. That he loved her--well and truly loved her, to the depths of his soul--there was not, in his whole being, a shard of doubt. That he needed her was self-evident, the stirring of his mind and groin informed him as he looked at her. Besides, she was his friend.
"What about us, Conan?" Ruth finally asked.
Conan laid down his knife and fork and took a swig of beer, his eyes fixed all the while on hers. He wiped his lips with his napkin and leaned slightly toward her. "It's only for a few short months, Ruth.... Just this one last time.... I'm drying up ... I'm writing less and less every day. They don't want to know about real people in real situations. They want..." he hesitated, then almost breathed the quotes around the word "'romance' and they don't see that the real romance is in reality ... the way things really are."
He looked briefly away from her around the restaurant. He stared for a moment at two males, both, he guessed, in their mid-thirties, one bearded, the other heavily mustachioed, both dressed in black leather caps and jackets, both heavily festooned with chains, both with eyes like lost children. She followed his gaze, then their eyes met again. She smiled. Conan looked away from her again, to where three blank-eyed youths, two of them with their hair longer than Ruth's were making their way to a table.
Suddenly, one of the youths, big and heavy and, thought Conan, fed for most of his few years on prime Texas beef, noticed Conan watching him. The boy glared at him in sullen hostility, a look that swiftly took in Conan's graying beard and glared in the arrogance that is a common intuitive reaction of much American youth toward older people. Conan, for a split second, thought of some of the lads he had sailed with over the years; then, just as fast as the remembrances had come, so, as he turned back to Ruth, they dissolved.
Ruth said, "Is it the danger, Conan?"
He looked at her steadily for a moment. Then he said, "Partly ... there's that, too. But I have to be independent, Ruth. I suppose it's the way I was brought up. It may be considered old-fashioned here and now, but I just don't ever want to have to be in the situation of having possibly to ask you"--or any woman, he thought--"for anything...."
"How long is this race, anyway?" she asked him.
Conan's face brightened. He took out his small notebook and consulted it. "Well, let's see," he said. He leafed through the pages. "Yes, here we are. Chichester did it in nine months back in sixty-six and sixty-seven ... and Alex Rose did it in a year ... Knox-Johnston in almost eleven months..." Conan grinned at Ruth. "...and Chay Blythe did it the wrong way round in just over nine months in seventy-one."
"Well, bully for Captain Blythe," said Ruth.
"Looks like it'll be around ten months," observed Conan.
There was a silence between them for what seemed to Conan to be an eternity. Then Ruth said, "You're mad, Conan. You know that?" She put her hand on his arm. "But I love you, you crazy, off-the-wall limey!"
"Then it's all right with you, Ruth? Okay with you? You can get away from the office and come to Lisbon with me?"
"No, it's not all right, Conan, and you goddamwell know it, and yes, I'll come..." She withdrew her hand from his arm. "...and I might just be here when you get back, if you get back to New York." There was a pause for a few seconds, then she said, "A year, a whole goddam year!" Quickly she finished her coffee. "Why do you do it, Conan? Don't you know, can't you get it into that stupid Scottish head of yours that the time for heroes is long gone? Why the hell couldn't you be a--an advertising agent, for God's sake, or--or--a--a taxi driver?"
Conan glanced momentarily at the old half-model hulls on the wall, their varnish now dulled with years of exposure to the steam and smoke of the restaurant. Phrases flashed through his head (the subtlety, the flexibility, the mystery of sail--the infinite variety and the incalculable complexity of the forces that are harnessed to serve the sailor's purpose: the wayward wind that resists all mastery, the would-be bitch sea, the frail, fierce phantom which is the ship herself, and which is always something more than the sum of her myriad parts. Her power, at the same time restraining and urgent--the sleek, reluctant beauty of her hull under the dominion of the mute sails she wears ... ).
Conan looked at Ruth. He smiled at her. "It'll keep me off the booze," he said. "Come on, let's get out of here." He picked up her parcel.
"Just don't make up for it when you get back," she admonished, as he took her elbow and guided her with courtliness through the passage between the tables, toward the doorway. He opened the door for her. "For you," he offered, as he took her arm, "only a glass of wine at mealtimes."
Out in the street, she pressed his arm under her breast. "Eight meals a day, huh?" she tested, smiling at him.
Ruth had the free-swinging stride of the middle-American woman. As she strode along, with her free hand she swung her pocketbook alongside her. It was a pace that sang of open spaces and horizons that never ended. Her hair, as she paced along, bobbed from side to side, like Nebraskan wheat, thought Conan, and as always when he walked with her, he made a conscious effort not to compare her presence to the mousy cling of many European women.
Conan, with no more recognition than Ruth, held up a hand in dubious greeting to an individual resembling a painter, who rushed past them in the street declaiming to himself in a loud voice. He carried two large cans of paint and threw, almost barked, a laughing word at Conan that sounded like "amigo!"
"Friend?" asked Ruth.
"I'm not sure.... I may have met him in one of the bars."
Silently then, they reached the front door of Conan's apartment house. They neither of them saw a pile of black plastic garbage bags on the sidewalk outside the door, nor did they hear the roaring and grinding of the trucks on Seventh Avenue; they were both only aware that soon they would be again in each other's arms, and that she had already forgiven him, even though she did not quite perfectly understand yet why he was going away from her. He was her man, she was his woman, that they both knew, and that, for the time being, was enough for them.
Later, much later, in the quiet dark, Ruth said sleepily, "If you sail a boat like you sail a woman, Conan, you're gonna win that stupid race."
"Hmmm?" he murmured. "Making up for lost time...."
"What do you do alone at sea?" she asked drowsily, as she gently caressed him.
"Whaddaya do at sea all on your own for months at a time?"
"Tie a knot in it," Conan replied. They both slept then, locked together, with the pain of the coming parting held at quiet bay.