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James Penha

December 19, 2013



He grabbed my arm tightly. I didn’t recognize him, didn’t know where he had come from, hadn’t seen him approach until pffft he held me fast so I wasn’t going anywhere. If I could, I would have screamed. But I was dumb with fear, and although I hate to admit this, I didn’t even struggle. Hysterical paralysis. For real.

He reminded me of the estuary itself. The first time I had been here I lay strapped in a carriage. I’d had, my guardian later told me, a penchant for escape and a tendency to tumble in any attempt to flee. He had therefore arranged the belts to prevent my falling from the buggy, but to permit me to sit if not stand up in the pram. On that first visit to the estuary, once I inhaled the odd mix of humid salt, rotting timber, and rotten fish, I needed to face it. I kneeled above the horizon of the carriage and saw the great waterway along which great ships berthed and bathed or slid their ways to every degree of the globe. This was no lazy river of the sort the ducks and swans of my Hans Christian Anderson books inhabited. Oh, I saw ducks and cranes and gulls in and above the estuary, but these were not country bumpkin birds. This was not the country.

A metropolis brooded over the estuary, rose above it on arched bridges, leaned into it from piers and jetties, seeped and spilled into it from pipes and sewers. I gripped the edge of my carriage, raised myself as tall as the leashes allowed, and yielded as best I could to the panorama.

I had gazed beyond my infancy, and, before long, the estuary, from that vantage, became the venue of my refuge and, eventually, my rite of passage.

When given leave to walk to school on my own and even when I wasn’t, I found the estuary. Better yet I made it there in the evening after dismissal. It was the salt of the sea for which I hungered, not the cookies awaiting me on the kitchen sideboard.

I had yet to outgrow the supporting columns of the wrought iron fence along the esplanade paralleling the estuary. A shiny globe topped each pillar. These were my mates, particularly the one I had met from my pram, the one with the purple nick of a smile. Nick. He told me what transpired on the estuary during my absences.

Nothing much had changed, Nick said. Everything is different, he explained. Look there. That wave was rippling in Lake Pandora the last time we spoke. And the rain that fell on us in April has reached the Cape by now.

Ships. Sailing ships. Ferries. Freighters. Cruisers. Liners. Tugs. Whalers. Ghost ships. All ships all. On the bridge buggies, lorries, surreys, cabs, coaches, broughams, curricles, gharries, hackneys, hansoms. Whims. Every one a carriage. Weather westerly, weather northerly, wet and dry. For years we conversed.

“Soon,” he said as I neared my fifteenth birthday, “the water will rise beyond its banks.” It often had, of course, but at my next visit, Nick was despondent. “The surge is at hand.”
And I felt the stranger’s grasp of my upper arm. I stared at Nick. Five fingers from thumb to pinky splayed upon his head. We were speechless. But the stranger said it was time to go.

“Nick can’t leave,” I whispered.

“No.” He released Nick and seized my other arm. He lifted me easily, until I had to look directly into his eyes: dark and bright, widely awake, framed by sun-whipped skin held together by a head and face of wavy wine-dark hair. I could impose any emotion I felt on his frown-less, smile-less, altogether unrelaxed visage. When he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me close, I felt the firmness of his pea coat. I smelled the newness of its collar and the mingled essences of soap, unguents, and talc from somewhere within.

He spun me round so that the back of my head affronted his own face and I melted into him until I disappeared. I had no chance to ask where we were going.

“To sea,” he said.


A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past nineteen years in Indonesia. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, the 2007 New Sins Press Editors’ Choice Award.  Waterways has selected lines from his many contributions to that litmag as its 2011-2012 themes for submissions. James edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Martha permalink
    December 25, 2013 8:02 pm

    What an incredible piece of writing!! Mysterious, nostalgic, utterly beautiful and extremely clever!

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