My daughter broke up with an oarsman once. She’d long wanted to leave the boy, and was relieved to do so, but still felt ambivalent after it was done. Perhaps a little sad too.
On the Great Lakes, rowers stroke using the long, wide bones of their wrists as oars. When they retire, these bones (which have been growing since birth) are forcibly removed. Some ex-rowers leave a nub of bone protruding, and they file this white stump into a fine point, like a horn.
Was it painful when they broke your oars?
My daughter’s oarsman hated that question. Of course he felt pain. Shock had erased any memory of the physical sensation of his crewmates holding him down on the shores of Shipman’s Corner, when they wedged his arms between rocks and stomped them. But he had peeked through his poorly tied blindfold and saw his majestic oar bones break. He described to my daughter watching an explosion of splinters like fluff blown from a dandelion, pieces of him so tiny they flew off in the air.
But they needed to be removed at some point, right? If you still had them, you wouldn’t be able to move anywhere.
Insensitive, but truthful. Oar bones grow twice the length of the body they are attached to by their twelfth year. Wide fans sprout along the side, rippled like fish tails. In the water, they propel their boats across the Great Lakes with speeds that come from a dream. No matter how many passengers are stacked (one atop the other), their weight cannot hinder the power of the oarsmen’s strokes. Their bones dip in and out of the water as effortlessly as feathered wings through the air.
If the bones were sturdier, the men could walk on their arms and bump their heads against the sky like giants. But due to their length and narrowness, the weight of an oarsman’s body would shear them in two. On land, the oars became anchors.
He confirmed my daughter’s point mournfully: No man out of a boat has use for oars. My bones must be broken. His new arms were so light, at first he believed they would float away. For the rest of his life, he’d row only in his sleep.
Passengers carried to the other side of the Great Lakes never return.
Without oar bones, one can only travel as far as the halfway point. Any further and the waves will sink your boat as easily as if it were made of scrap paper. Through telescopes, we see distant smoke signals rising into the air across the shore, so we know the people transported there persist in some form.
The oarsmen return carrying nothing more in their boats than the secrets of the other side. Secrets that burden them more than any shipment of stone or iron.
My daughter had only one question about the passengers. She wanted to know if, at the end of the journey when they reached land, were they optimistic? Or still afraid?
He couldn’t sleep in bed with her that night. From where he lay on the floor, he told her, I still haven’t learned to live amongst you, knowing things I’ll never be able to tell.
The horns in his wrist poked holes in my daughter’s mattress when he rolled over in the night. According to her, he slept like a shark, always in constant motion, his arms rowing phantom oars.
She wondered if all lovers of former oarsmen have similar mattress holes. He told her she was rude to expect him to stick cork over his horns at night. He wasn’t going to apologize for the parts of him she considered broken.
I felt bad when he said that. I didn’t call him a burden or an uncomfortable sight to look at.
I said nothing, only nodded.
But it isn’t just the mattress he pokes.
Night after night, his horns would settle into familiar positions against her skin, wearing grooves that grew deeper and deeper. After bathing, she checked herself in the mirror to count the red dots marking her sides. His nocturnal embrace was filling her with holes. Not long after, she awoke to find red dots on the sheets.
Only a few, and none bigger than the head of a pin. But how long before I wake to bigger dots? How long before I drown in my own blood?
She started looking for transgressions.
While visiting friends, she would sneak into their bedrooms to examine their mattresses for holes. She found none, which caused more resentment than relief. Finding holes would have justified her violation of their privacy. Finding holes would have given her an acceptable reason for leaving him.
She tried stabbing new holes in her mattress, hoping to arouse his suspicious mind. Men unable to control their jealousy are unbearable. If he accused her of bringing other oarsmen to her bed, she could leave him.
He wasn’t fooled. He knew the difference between horn punctures and knife punctures.
I challenged him to ask whether or not I’d been unfaithful, and he’d never do it. He told me, ‘I’d rather be ignorant than devastated. I already know more than I can shoulder.’
He stayed away from the Great Lakes. Seeing the other rowers saddened him. Partially, he pitied them for what they’d have to endure once it was decided they were no longer fit to row. But mostly, he mourned never being able to rejoin them. Even if he could regain his youth and his strength, a broken oar bone will not grow back.
He once told my daughter about carrying a shipment of crying passengers across the Great Lake when a fellow rower’s arm cracked. The end must have struck rocks, creating a split that ran all the way into his forearm. The other rowers laid him on his back. They pulled his oars out of the water, careful not to let a single splintered piece break off.
We focused on holding him together. Pressing the cracks in his oars tight, willing them to seal and grow over. When we drifted onto shore, we realized he’d never row again. The bone was shattered. Clumps of marrow were all over the boat, stuck to the soles of our feet.
She asked, What happened to him?
He didn’t answer. Just traced his thumb over the bit of pointed horn protruding from his wrist.
Their friends ignored his horns. His white, pointed bones were something they might ask about if the topic came up in conversation, but not something they felt comfortable drawing attention to. Every person wears a story only shared with intimates, be it the horns on their wrists, or a missing finger, or a hole in the cheek.
But my daughter’s friends didn’t have to sleep alongside him. Didn’t have to feel the points of his horns in their skin. Didn’t have to listen to him struggle in the night, fighting the weight of the secrets of the other side of the Great Lakes.
I asked her what business it was of her friends why she wanted to leave him.
She took a long time to answer.
I’d rather be a woman who breaks up with a man because he was bad than be a woman who breaks up with a man because she can’t comfort him when he hurts.
She told me of a woman she once worked alongside on the docks. The woman wore red indentations on her eyelids. My daughter imagined this woman’s oarsman laying on her in the night, holding his wrists over her eyes, applying just enough pressure to poke the thin layer of skin over her pupils. All he had to do was relax and press his full weight on her, and those horns would puncture her eyes. My daughter said she imagined it sounding like a knife puncturing the skin of a grape.
And I was so jealous of her that she could leave him with a clear conscience.
He didn’t put up a fight when my daughter finally told him to leave. She emphasized this detail over and over, as though it meant he wanted to leave, too, that their breakup was mutual.
He offered her a parting gift, unloading something he’d learned crossing the Great Lakes.
If you ever become one of the passengers being transported, don’t allow yourself to reach the other side. Go limp and slip into the water. The oarsmen will be unable to fish you out and will leave you to drown.
My daughter asked what we had all wondered: Why are those people ordered into the boats? What have they done to deserve that?
He told her, When you leave the boat, be sure you don’t get caught between their oars in the water, or you’ll become entangled, and you’ll be hauled in and out of the water the entire way, enduring all the suffering of drowning without its relief.
He leaves and does not return, as she requested.
Years later, she saw him in the market, alongside another woman. Very close. So close the setting sun filled the crack between them with red light. For a moment, my daughter felt jealous. Already he’d moved on, found someone else, like a dog. Then she remembered how many partners she’d had since leaving him.
The horns on his wrists had vanished. He’d filed the offensive points down to a flat surface. She had to strain to spot the coin-sized circles of white on his wrist. They must have turned invisible on days he didn’t wash, blended completely into his skin.
He said something to the woman standing beside him. She laughed, throwing her head back, her hair swaying like palm leaves. She stepped closer to him, blotting out the crack of red light between them. They pressed their bodies together.
He and the woman were haggling with one of the sellers.
I told her I was too tired to haggle anymore, that I value my time. That’s why I sent her to market. Otherwise I’d overpay for everything.
She didn’t smile back at me. I was annoying her by straying from the subject of her focus.
They were buying a wooden bassinet. A dirty one. The previous owner must have used it as a flower bed in their garden. The only baby you could picture in that muddy thing was one dead and buried. They were buying a bassinet someone grave-robbed.
Yes, I said, then surely they planned to fill it with dirt and flowers for their garden.
I failed to convince her.
Only… only he took a cloth from his pocket and began polishing the dirt from its side, to see it cleaned up. Like he wanted to imagine how it would look in a nursery.
I told her he may have shed the horns, but he still rowed in his sleep. The secret knowledge he carried about the other side of the Great Lakes still pressed on him. She’d already proven she couldn’t be happy with him. There are worse things, I said, than holes in a mattress. Not everything that presses against your body in the night leaves a mark.
My daughter nodded, but I knew she couldn’t get it out of her mind that this other woman succeeded where she hadn’t. She’d stopped him rowing in his sleep, soothed the burden of his knowledge about the other side of the Great Lakes, and helped him forget, finally. This other woman deserved her happiness.
The ex-oarsman is gone from my daughter’s life, but she will never be free of the possibility that one day she will be forced onto the boats for passage to the other side. His warning weighs her down so much she sometimes wonders if he said it not as a parting gift but a curse.
She cries to me that her body is never rested in the morning. In her sleep, she tumbles from bed onto the floor. She can’t stop herself. Bruises cover her sides. The cap of her knee has begun tingling before it rains. On those nights, unconscious but still worrying, she practices over and over the proper way to slip out of the boat into the water so that she drowns quickly instead of getting caught in the rower’s strokes, thrashed in and out of the water, choking, trapped in the rowers’ inescapable bones.