Portrait of the Captain with Small Waiting Objects
She’d half expected screens in her quarters, galleries
rotating through portraits by famous masters, landscapes
changing with seasons they’d never see. Instead,
she unrolled the print of a painting she’d seen on a school trip,
a Cassatt mother cradling a pastel child. She must have been
eleven or twelve, sneaking into the gift shop after the others
had gone on, slipping the dollar bills on the counter
for the postcard she’d shoved into her bag.
One corner bent then, the others later creased
beneath her pillow. Her mother had given away her baby
dolls the summer before, had given her a pair of roller skates,
some blunt reminder that her momentum should be away, away—
The lonely summer weeks on those skates, the only child
on the block, allowed to go no farther than the end
of her street. The weeks aboard ship longer still: years,
really. How long her mother had been confined with her,
keeping her in the house until her immune system was strong
enough to stave off what there could never be vaccines for.
She’d imagined her mother turning on the dishwasher,
folding laundry, disinfecting what was delivered,
watching her months-old baby breathing.
Her mother would ask her what it was like
there on ship. Is it like that, this journey, like watching the baby
sleep until it cried, that ritual of the newborn
mission? She’d been through too many metaphors already.
Not like Eve in the garden, stumbling through first-
time motherhood, showing her baby black and white
flashcards of all the animals Adam tended. Not like
motherhood at all, nurturing this ship forward, toward
what awaited them after hundreds of years. As captain,
the easy metaphor others would use for her: the mother of this ship,
then as she aged, childless, the grandmother. She understands
that same urge she’d had to see the painting again. The same
urge to hold all her dolls again, who had to be rocked to sleep,
fretting in the arms of their new mommies and daddies.
She’d cried herself to sleep thinking of their futures then,
nostalgic the way we’re all nostalgic of a future we’d love
to shape in ways that it cannot be. The way she’d thought of it,
this ship was like a chunk of driftwood she and the others
clung to in a hurricane, small creatures already heavy
with litters they’d bear where they landed. No,
they’d crafted the driftwood, they’d even crafted
the storm. She let this thought go, moved toward another:
what this was like was something she’d be
unable to reach, that island at the end of their journey.
Something briefly held, briefly sketched, then passed
to those who will give this another name.
T.D. Walker’s poems and flash fiction have appeared in Abyss & Apex, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Kaleidotrope, The Stonecoast Review and elsewhere. She blogs occasionally at her website, freethinkingahead.com.