Treasure Island

Content now. For the moment. At last concluded a short story I’d planned to finish in September, and before that the prior October, and before that the tail end of 2016. Sometimes, a work is just not ready and we realize it, and I am always too distracted. Oddly enough, this new story references Treasure Island of all books. Though perhaps not so surprising as a recently finished essay referenced The Wizard of Oz, and I’ve not read that one.

But Treasure Island. A café is named The Black Spot. The proprietor is named Silva. A barista is named Red (this one’s complicated). Metaphors for cannon rounds crash through log walls and there’s much idle drawing of maps, all curiously lacking an X-marks-the-spot.

But somewhere in development, the fiction became about predatory storytelling, the appropriation of local legends, and the superposition of imagined narratives. Perhaps I even had something subconscious to say about Treasure Island’s noted exclusion of women, as well as the novel’s conscious borrowing of material from other authors: Kingsley, Irving and Poe, not to mention its cozying entrenchment in historical events and figures.

But this got me thinking, to actual great surprise, about the very first piece of fiction I remember writing. Certainly the first of pages-substance. Seventh grade, 12 years old. A school assignment. We were assigned to rewrite a chapter from a book—or, depending, perhaps just a scene. From what I remember, everyone chose different books—and I choose Treasure Island. I wasn’t such a big reader then, if I am now. I remember going back to the same few again and again like one does a pop-song playlist.

Not a big reader, but I sure loved buying books yearly at the local library’s fundraiser. You can fill a couple banker’s boxes when the paperbacks (Treasure Island included) cost 10 cents each. I don’t remember all the details, but the gist of my rewrite was to have Jim attempt to retake the ship—and there was a fair amount of sharpshooting from the rigging.

But the most wonderful thing is: I cannot, to this day, separate the narratives. What I wrote at the age of 12 remains more real to me than the original. Or at least inextricable. Adventure. Not so much a foray into fan fiction as a partial rewrite of a classic. Better memories. 

More interesting then that Treasure Island found it’s way into my new short story when the story is very much about rewriting a history for something imagined more favorable. I mean, there’s no one named Red in the Treasure Island original unless were talking about a minor character named Redruth. I checked Wikipedia—

And I’m fairly certain I haven’t re-read the novel since middle school and that any borrowing now is done through deep memory, because time and because I’m not a big reader and if there’s time at all, I’m keen to read something new. I also seem to have lost that old draft to a buried box somewhere. Understand that I’m teased regularly for being “very” organized. I’m not, really, but the rumors are true, I do possess a hand-made glue-bound volume on my shelves that purports to be the “Collected Papers (unrevised) of Roger Topp,” by the dates, collected between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. Clearly a protective dump from a floppy disc both too large too small to stay in style. Of course, I also have sworn grade-school teacher testimony (in writing) I’m an extrovert, and implying this may be a problem.

Or perhaps I don’t reread Stevenson because I’ve moved on, because the novel was definitively for boys, or perhaps, if were to retread the book, looking for clues and memories, there’s a chance Stevenson’s original narrative might, because I’m sure it’s pretty decent, reassert itself and clear out this unauthorized memory.

Falmouth, 4 a.m.

Falmouth, 4 a.m. Tiny flies on the sidewalk table. Tiny streams from the overnight sprinklers. Murdered puddles of ice cream. The air smells like a good day. Crickets and the clank of the fuel truck and hoses feeding the petrol station. The baker is in. The dress maker is asleep in her bed, all of the covers pushed down—the window a soft splatter of American flags. The moon, soon to eclipse the sun, is a slim pointer for the morning star.

Raccoons in the dumpsters. Rabbits in the parking lot—and then everyone who didn’t get there too early, everyone who trusts a bus schedule. Uneven sidewalks and bubblegum, a dryad monster potted in a road median.

These are artifacts of the simulation, slipping, absent-minded, resolved to straight lines and mathematical curves. The alignments are by-blow, something I keep to myself. This bus won’t be put of service half-way across the morning run because the aisle is a bathtub of puke and beer, sloshing back and forth and side to side at stops and hard turns. I’m not pushing a wheelbarrow about the grounds of a nursing home, not anymore, not for a long time—smelling the gasoline and the junipers we planted yesterday, yearning for my lunch break from minute one.

In recent years, I’ve taught myself to wake early. It does not matter when I fall asleep. It does not matter when I have coffee. It does not matter. The penalties are small. I leave a wet-dripped-from-the-cup trail between rooms. I lose a hat when it should be on my head. But pushing six back to four, once in a while, is in stride—if I have somewhere to go.

Some mornings I forget to set the alarm. I’ll wake, regardless, within minutes of when it should have broken the silence. But most mornings there’s no bus to catch. Fewer each year, I think—and this morning I again woke before the alarm. Because I had no destination in mind, only the kitchen counter espresso and the desk in the home office, I remained on my back, thinking about one character and then another for an hour and then another. This month, one is traveling to a gas giant’s moon. Another drops her luggage into the trunk of a taxicab even as she plans to abandon it and go by foot. 

Public reading in a couple weeks. I plan to read tight excerpts like popcorn, and most will concern going places, travel so called—and what’s there when we step back to the curb.

Geist Heist Ex Libris

Report from the Hill (transmission follows)

>>You know it’s a blog when I use exclamation points.

September’s attention was split across four stories: a nonfiction, a non genre fiction, and two genre fictions more speculative than last. Otherwise the time was put towards submissions and re-collating the collection, which I’m now happy to report has been retitled (again) into the fresh grotesque, Imaginary Friends and Monsters: A Not Entirely Nonfictional Memoir. Yes, that sums it up mostly accurately. The English language might indeed have the tools we’re looking for.

Four new stories then. Important to work on multiple stories at once, where ‘at once’ sometimes means within the same hour, and getting to an editable draft takes months if not years. Thinking time, getting out to watch the fall song birds, and the soil needs to sprout species not planned for. Some of the seedlings will be welcome, revision in autumnal ink and dropped on the data-entry stack, which can take forever to get to (because that’s not the fun part) but when I’m about to run out of clean sheets on which to scribble.

So three of this month’s stories were milled in this way, where each had near a dozen drafts already coming into the month. Yes, we wish for the other thing. I buy a great many pens.

Sometimes I can finish a story in eight drafts. Usually this means I’m in denial, or so tired I need the child to be someone else’s problem for a few days or a few months. This month, I’ve lost count of the drafts, which I think is a good thing, and I’m not thinking we’re about done here, when all were difficult children—and still might be. I think all three stories might be wrap this week, but the one named “Destination Wedding” was supposed to wrap in August. It did wrap. It went on to the submission stack—and two weeks later in peak submissions season I hadn’t sent it anywhere. Clearly I lacked faith in it. So, another half dozen drafts of a short story that might be best summed up with the term, dark tourism, and the clause, Traveling ill is the new terrorism (Yeah, the first draft was in 2017). I did some soul searching in March 2020, noting how many of my stories feature someone with a head cold on an airplane. But besides that, Wedding is also notable for containing the best explicit sex I’ve ever written—which I only mention because that’s faith in a work! I like to say a story doesn’t go out until I love it more than anything else I’ve written, ever! That’s probably, mostly true. The same cannot be said for blog posts.

Also finding its polish this week, a short essay about the summer I lived in a tent in the Alaska woods. Inexplicably, my camp featured a couch as much as a sleeping bag. Like any of my anything, it’s tightly wound and I need to kick it into the mail before it begins putting on weight.

The third story this month is a 6,800-word fantasy (say it ain’t so!) that had to be whittled from raw ore nearer 12,000 words. This one’s a geist heist ex libris (so, like, its own newly minted genre) during a peculiar celestial event. It is professionally narrated by a doomed and wonderful pickpocket I’ve worked with before.

Mental state willing, I look forward to saying good luck and goodbye to these latest children and return to novel revisions in October. That’ll be a ride.

Oh yes, the fourth story this month! There’s always one that’s young yet, and this one began as a dream in July. So, it’s an oddity, getting under the pen so soon, and more so because dreams are good for little else than hazy impressions. I credit the morning coffee for making of it something useful, and September was largely typing up 5,000 words of notes and scenes and dialogue about characters not yet willing to talk to each other, and me getting in great discussions with myself over where the story needs to go and how I want this to be something beautiful and fleeting and not another 7,000-word speculative beast with fewer opportunities in the marketplace. More later on this science fiction, except to say it takes place on a moon of an alien gas giant (actually in space—I know! This is departure! Technically an arrival). The story involves characters of an age where technology begins to get away from them, so like, in their forties. It’s a natural thing, and I’m immediately reminded, right now, that language too is technology. Ok, that thought is going to generate more pages of discussion, and I’ll likely have to take it out running on the weekend. Oh hey, some pictures from the great northern outdoors not yet on space ships.

Repair

I sat beside the gas fireplace in a café, in summer, and I bought the same t-shirt I always buy when I visit Virginia. I wanted to find Catherine’s tree, and I needed to walk Rugby Road in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone debacle and with REM in my head. And I wanted to figure out which house was Phi Kappa Psi, because, well—the names never meant much then—but I wanted to try and remember whether I’d been there too. I wanted to see if my memories were accurate down to the hedge and the tree on the left a dozen yards from the next standing lamp. I wanted to walk the ways I walked 25 years ago—but a lot has changed. The theatre is in the same hollow, but the paint on the bridge is beyond the inch thick.

Later, I repair to the Lawn under cover of twilight, and as in the daytime took photographs that largely pretended I was alone. It is not a hard thing to make a crowd invisible, in the dark and between the street lamps and the louvered effect of the colonnades, the way ghosts are.

There was a day on the boat last month I took a break from the winches and the Mustang suits, the nets and rapt/worrisome gawking at sea ice and walrus, polar bears and the distillation of chlorophyll and zooplankton meat—maybe half an hour, about the same amount of breathing I spent with Catherine’s tree once I found it. I’m not sure what led me from the Arctic Ocean to the Charlottesville photographs, but perhaps it was a way to get, just briefly, off the boat. Maybe the folders on the laptop were near to each other. Perhaps I needed to expose more for strangers stumbling from the edge of the frame than those I had put front and center. Maybe I needed to escape the ice and fog and water, the vaporous horizon, and find the firmer edges of twilight. Maybe the bright red mooring floats and the falling snow over bird-less grey water reminded me of winter berries and trail lamplight, even in the thick of summer.

Maybe I was possessed by a residual reverence for these things, bright now, and digital—which is exactly what architecture is meant to do, the machine nature of a village where none of the photographs escape the fact this place is once again under construction, once again an evasive thing, transforming itself in an effort to remain exactly the same. A fence runs across in front of the Rotunda, as scaffolding enveloped Monticello 25 years ago—and Catherine’s tree? It’s girded by gates and signs I ignore to get to it. I report to Hyong that the memorial plaque is gone now—we hope temporarily, until the latest repairs to the village are over and done with. Her name will return before the light of the barbecue, before the fall. Repairs to the village. Yes. That is why.

Music is Not Made for the Adventure

August 22

I most remember the sounds of the very young ship and the too many things that didn’t fit together when she had only just met saltwater, the way the north Atlantic swells rattled the coat hangers from one end of the closet to the other, the way some of the drawers wouldn’t latch and then opened and closed two feet deep on every crest and every trough—and there seemed too many other things to do to find the duct tape—and these are just the silly surface details. Then the anchors bounced in their pockets and the chains rang like bells in their tubes.

Emerson Eads wrote music for the Sikuliaq’s launch, recorded by the Fairbanks Symphony orchestra. They played it the day we dropped the ship into the Menominee River. They played Emerson’s piece at the reception—but people were more in a mood to talk about the future of the boat and the future of the Arctic and arctic research than listen to music that had never seen the boat run, or grow, or settle into itself. Music is not made for the adventure. It arises from it. Sometimes it is just the song playing on the radio, or the quartet at the top of your last playlist. You can’t force the show, and no one had yet heard the voice of the Sikuliaq. The ship had barely gotten wet, despite the rain in Wisconsin.

The delicacy of the symphony orchestra’s recording was lost to the poor playback from someone’s laptop and a neglected speaker system. All this hoity-toity theatre, dress-up, and presumption, and they didn’t get the sound right. It’s fine. This is art. This is science. We work at it and we work at it with big plans and little control of the details. They fall out as they must, and we work at it some more and some more until people begin to take notice.

The Sikuliaq’s song is strongest when she’s running and the swells grow large. You can hear it best in the forward hold below the chains. There the rhythm of the sea and the moan of the engines come together in the steel to create a sound all her own. I have it recorded. I listen to it sometimes to remember.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @toppworld on Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

 

The Thing Not Moving

August 19

We had barely begun the mooring recovery when I returned to the lab to grab another dozen rolls of film. Weeks now into the cruise and my daily planning has gone janky. If tomorrow I have a battery fail mid-operation, I won’t be surprised. I tell Celia how I’ve just burned through sixty photos, and the mooring is still far out in front of us. It is barely a bright speck of dust to get caught in the eye. For twenty minutes, we’ve watched the buoy on the surface, dragged under one ice floe after another. Marion on the rescue boat is gunning it between the floes and doing donuts in every parking lot he can find. Betty also drives, but she’s the one with the hook to snag the buoy when the time comes. The third mate can stretch his legs for a spell—the ship takes time to maneuver into position and to wait for a hole big enough in the ice to conclude the recovery. The weight of the mooring prevents the rescue boat from dragging the thing back to us.

While we wait, I can’t for the life of me remember what that one photo was of. Breakfast seems such a long time ago, like the distance all the way back to the start of the cruise.

The day was slow to start, because of the fog and the ice and the ship trying to find a good place to fish and then moving on to collect the mooring. And at some time near lunch—before or after, who can tell—I heard the ratcheting of a socket wrench coming from the Baltic room. I got a little excited. Until then there hadn’t been so much as a table tennis match to photograph.

In the Baltic room, Mike was working on a mooring we will deploy near Barrow Canyon on our way west back through the Chukchi and the Bering Seas. We have the hardware recovered earlier in the cruise, and it appears to function well on deck and to be up to another year’s service under water and under arctic ice. We take the opportunity to redeploy hardware to record the yearlong physics and to listen for belugas in a neighborhood where the whales have been spotted before. Because of the currents, the area is typically ice free in summer, and there are ships of opportunity that will be able to collect the instruments many months from now.

Tonight, we recover the short-term mooring we deployed on the 8thof August. While we waited for the ship to draw close, huge, rounded mountains appeared to the east. Phil said that through binoculars from the bridge, he could see the details down to the trees and the leaves on the trees. I asked him if he could see elk. There are no elk here, and there are no mountains, only cold water, warmer air, and a heavy fog sculpted by the wind as if it were a series of towering sand dunes or massive ocean swells.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

A Fishing Trip

August 18

So, again I’m in a small boat on the sea, and amongst ice floes for the first time in 14 years—then one of my first photographic expeditions on any terrain. In 2004, I was in the Chukchi Sea on the other side of Point Barrow, photographing Inupiat hunters take seals from 14-foot open boats with a rifle and a harpoon, stalking about the floes and then racing through the gaps to get to the seals before they sank. We spent whole days on the water, eating packed sandwiches and drinking coffee from a thermos. I made the mistake of loaning my lens wipe to the man with the rifle, only to see it flutter away in the wind. This time I’ve brought three. This time, our fishing trip sees us much farther out to sea and always within foggy eyesight of the mother ship.

Before we go, with rod and reel and cameras, so many cameras, Steve makes a joke about how if I don’t come back, can he have my stuff? I tell him I’m carrying it all with me. So, no running off and leaving us out in the middle of the ocean. I’ve done this before—loaded with a backpack and a duffle bag and cameras. We’ve gunned the motor so as not to be captured by ice floes, and we’ve been stranded on an ice floe as the pilot fixed the outboard—and we’ve raced for Barrow as the pack-ice pushed us to shore and we walked the last few miles to the end of the road where we were met by trucks. So, sure, if we don’t see you again, I’m confident we’ll make it somewhere. I’m content to see where that story goes. Trucks and a wet road. I know how this works. Adventure. You just keep going until there’s a bed and some food in a cupboard.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.