Buoyant Things

“You’ve got the wrong guy!” he shouted, dazed and confused. Again they whacked him, the smack of the metal bat agonizing against his bare shoulder. He made to stifle a shriek, but it escaped his mouth like the whistle of a kettle. The black cloth sack went over his head for a third and final time.

From the sack came the insistent muffled voice, strewn with pain and panic. “You’ve got the wrong guy!!!” the voice pleaded.

At that last word, a heavy brown leather shoe found it’s footing against the naked back of the captive man, and with a swift motion sent him hurling into the unforgiving bay. He disappeared into the deep green darkness, the shackles around his feet pulling the weight of his legs over his head as he hit the water.

“That’ll teach him to mess with Mama Lei.”

Hugo was a painter who liked small boats and sea birds to feature in his work. He valued buoyant, placid things that wouldn’t overwhelm the vast beauty of the ocean but still had something to offer in its presence. A massive, flashy sailboat would sure lose the message, a creaky wooden ship could only sink the whole work. The ocean can speak for itself, Hugo thought, and a bird or modest vessel does just enough to pepper some flavor into that conversation.

Hugo walked past Green Bay every day on the way to his studio at exactly 5:45 AM. He carried a large burlap bag containing his canvas, his case of watercolor paints and his brushes, slung over his shoulder. He stopped and scanned the horizon at 5:47 for a few moments or less, depending on the weather. He walked at a comfortable, even pace for two more blocks before turning right by the Stevenson Cannery. By 6:00 AM each day, he had turned the lock on the door of his studio like clockwork and entered the realm of his creative mind.

It had been weeks since Hugo had completed a painting he was truly satisfied with. He had scrapped his most recent attempt to paint a pelican landing gracefully over the water. To be exact, he had scrapped such an attempt eleven separate times. On September 2nd, 2003 at 5:40 AM Hugo was hot on the trail of a new painting as he trundled along on his daily walk to the studio. He could still taste the butter from his morning pastry lingering on his top lip, and he thought of the ocean. The day was foggy, warm and gray. It was the perfect beacon of inspiration for a new work of art. He smiled to himself and the bounce in his step felt electric.

At 5:45 Hugo’s feet brought him to an automatic stop at his favorite lookout point on the bay. A piece of the metal barrier had been removed from this outcropping years before and had never been replaced. Water churned at the wall there with envy of that mass of land that kept it at bay. On especially stormy days, it got a taste of rebellion as it sent a wave over onto the street, before pulling itself back in with slippery restraint. Hugo stood there at 5:45 AM on September 2nd, 2003, gazing out at this unfenced view of the water and gasping suddenly.

There, about 6 yards out in front of him, a shape bobbed rhythmically over the waves. The shape was unmistakably a young man, and unmistakably a dead one. A mist hung solemnly over the whole terrible thing, yet it seemed somehow respectful of both the shape and the surface of the water as it strayed no further than they would allow. It was like a dream. A frantic, dizzy feeling swept over Hugo. “I have to paint this,” he thought to himself. He glanced quickly to his right, his left, and behind him. No one. The morality of his action could be grappled with later - a vision was at stake.

Hugo threw his bag over his shoulder and onto the ground. As he began to fight with the clasp of his bag, a beam of yellow light hit him in the face. He glanced up and squinted, using one hand to shield him from the glare. To his dismay, a large boat had emerged from the mist and was steadily and silently approaching him, narrowly missing the floating body as it came to greet him. A surly-looking man with two scrawny, serious companions on either side of him was standing on its deck. As the boat pulled up to where Hugo crouched with his bag on the ground, the man jumped and landed directly in front of him. His two cronies followed suit and the man snatched Hugo upright by the scruff of his collar.

“Thought you could get away with it, did you? Mama Lei had you within an inch of our sight the moment you left the island.”

“I-I don’t know what you mean? What island?” whimpered Hugo.

“WHAT ISLAND?!” bellowed the raging man, seemingly offended. “You thought you could drown her intended and end up unpunished, did you?! There he is, floating lifeless…MAN, Mama Lei is devastated.” He gestured with a wild swing of his arm to the dead body in the bay. “You thought you’d take his place and move up the ladder? That right? Well as it turns out, its up to me, and I’d say we ought to make it even.”

Hugo opened his mouth to protest the absurdity and was simultaneously met with a smack against the stomach by a hunk of metal produced by one of the skinny companions. The man dropped Hugo and he doubled over, groaning in pain. As he did so the other skinny, frightening man clasped shackles over his legs.

“No one messes with Mama Lei, fool.” The man who spoke threw a sack over Hugo’s head and slung the unfortunate painter over his shoulder with one single, nimble motion. The crew returned to the ship as quickly as they had come. As the ship was swallowed into the fog, Hugo wailed out fruitlessly “but you’ve got the wrong guy!” The body in the water bobbed in sympathy.

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