a photograph of a tree with a blue-grey filter and blurred background



“The failure of trees is inherently unpredictable.”

— Caswell Memorial State Park


It’s strange to have the idea on the boat where there are no books, no letters — only water and the different kinds of light in it. I am thirsty when I start wondering if that’s what letters are, particular dark marks that expose the light. I stare into the water, its shadows and colors and clouds of dust; I can hear the water and I can hear the light. Everything tastes of salt and I wonder if this is delirium, if it mimics the way my grandfather used to think, sitting in his chair and blinking quickly — like he was trying to capture sudden flashes of light under his eyelids.

I love you, I think, only I’m not sure who I am saying it to, and then Pavel points towards land.

In the place where we come from, heavy branches are falling to the ground. We are not sure where the falling begins and ends, not sure what separates one site from another, if it’s happening only in our place or everywhere. As soon as you start to speak of one place and search for its edges, it either becomes something new, or refuses you entirely — but still the falling is happening. If it weren’t, all of us wouldn’t have left like this, on boats with strangers named Pavel, looking for the edges of this place or the next one, anywhere without heavy objects falling from just above our heads.

“What?” Pavel asks me.
“I didn’t say anything,” I answer, though I’m not sure it’s true.

He nods, hands me a jug of water. When I drink, the taste is unfamiliar.

The land ahead doesn’t seem to have trees, but we can’t really make anything out through the shine: chemical, frightening, also beautiful.

a photograph of a tree with a blue-grey filter and blurred background

Jr Korpa via Unsplash

When the light finally settled a bit behind my eyes, I saw equations I didn’t recognize written everywhere on the sides of the boat, on all curves and corners, in gold paint.

I must have fallen asleep, because I wake up suddenly. Pavel is looking through some binoculars at a strange squeaking sound. He looks and looks and then nods.

“It must be the vegetation,” he says, and nods again. I nod too, as if I understand the relationship between his words and the things around us at all.

When he pushed me into this boat, equally urgent and gentle, everything was sound: the creaking under my feet, the crashing behind me. His voice beside me saying no time.

I didn’t see the markings on the boat until later, when the waves in the sea and in my belly subsided. It began to seem possible then, if only slightly, to open my eyes, to stand up, to bend over and put a finger in the water everywhere around us.

Looking down for the first time was just like looking up: all a sky.

When the light finally settled a bit behind my eyes, I saw equations I didn’t recognize written everywhere on the sides of the boat, on all curves and corners, in gold paint. The letters weren’t only waterproof; they grew brighter under the water.

As if peering from a great distance, Pavel looked at me, then lowered his binoculars. He opened a hidden compartment in the bottom of the boat, handed me a chunk of bread that was hard in a nice way. When I bit into it, my tongue hit jam and I tasted red.

“Tools of navigation,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he meant the binoculars, or the bread, or the constant packing and repacking he must have done to keep this boat ready. I needed to get used to his speech, because until he pushed me into this boat, we had never spoken. Once, though, my mother had waved to him and his grandmother while we stood on the dock buying some milk.

“We’re here,” my mother told me then, “because Pavel’s grandmother knew how to handle a boat.”

(When I think of my mother: hunger.)

The art of navigation has been passed down through families carefully, its practitioners like priests. The math of water and stars given to them through the study of boatmaking, the equations arising in them and on every surface of their vessels like spells or prayers.

Pavel knew this math because his grandmother knew hers, because she built and sailed, living off the money of her patrons. Like the others, she stayed mostly at sea, coming to dock only when she needed more bread and salt, until catastrophe arrived, as it did once in a while: moving us again from one place to another.

My grandparents were always waiting for it to happen again, my mother too. She had spent a life listening to her parents talk about before: how they’d traveled by boat thanks to the navigators, and how the journey had seemed long but was actually very short. They had crossed just a small border of water between islands, a narrow bit of sea we were crossing back over now, a delayed return trip. My grandparents spent their lives waiting, but they were gone by the time the philosophers started asking the question: if the manner of our arrival was the means by which the next disaster would reach us.

(I still don’t remember. I still don’t remember how I got separated from her.)

My feet in the bottom of the boat were dry. They looked like someone else’s. They looked like feet that might have run. I hadn’t run though, because there was no time left, everyone crashing into each other on the dock. Everyone lost and looking above their heads as the falling grew faster.

When the sound reached its peak, Pavel was the navigator standing closest to me. He wouldn’t let me run: no time. He pulled me into this boat just as everything disappeared behind us.

(I still don’t remember. I still don’t remember how I got separated from her.)

When I was little, I told my mother I wanted to be a navigator. She smiled, shook her head, and placed a book in my hands.

“Not just anyone can learn the practices needed to travel that way,” she said. “It’s passed down through families; it’s dangerous for someone with new blood to learn.”


“Because. Those equations can misdirect, drive a person mad. If something happens again, if we have to leave this place, the navigators will be ready. They’ll protect who they can.”

She turned away and turned back like she always did; she never knew when her sentences were done. She warned me then that if something happened, I could choose to be someone who thought too much or too little.

“Choose to think too little,” she said.

a photograph of a silhouette stretching an arm out toward an orange moon against a green background and sky

Jr Korpa via Unsplash

I used to dream only forwards or sideways, but my dreams on the water were all flashes back in time. Mother. Hair in wind. Crashing. A branch beside her feet. Something red. The urge to run. A navigator pushing her. A boat. She is too far from shore. Maybe. Someone is singing. Screaming. A hand on my back, pushing. My feet on wood. Crashing. Pavel’s face: something like fear. Roaring. He says stay. Creaking: the earth’s huge door opening. Boats leaving all around us. The shore disappearing under branches. I can’t see her. A few distant stars. Flash.

After we’d been at sea for a while, after I’d looked over the side of the boat at the strange gold paint and grown dizzy, I waited. I thought maybe Pavel would teach me math problems along the way, but in those first hours, we barely spoke. He kept inhaling like he wanted to say something, but no words would follow. One time, though, after he’d looked down into the water longer than usual, he looked up.

“I think she’ll be there when we arrive,” he said. “I saw her with Genya; she’s a good navigator.”

My breath caught; I pushed it back down. His sentences didn’t sound true and we went back to not speaking. Still, he didn’t let me stay hungry. He kept pulling nuts and crackers from the compartment in the foot of the boat. He handed me the jug of water and I drank, feeling the glass on my lips, pressing my eyelids shut to keep the dark in. I thought of what is sharp: thorns, the point of the plus sign on the side of a boat, the boat’s wooden splinters I could feel burrowing into the skin of my hands, the skin of my feet.

(Maybe she had. Maybe she had been close enough. Maybe she had been close enough to reach a boat.)

All those vessels that left at the same time, they were somewhere. But every time I wake up, there is only Pavel.

The morning, when it comes, smells like salt — no, fish, I think, and open my eyes to the island’s shine. I can hear it now: like a fluttering of wings.

On the shore, a child holds a fish by its tail in front of a small house with a tin roof. She doesn’t speak audibly, just mouths with great drama, as if talking to someone unlikely to understand. I see her tongue touching the roof of her mouth, the o shape, the tongue, the a shape.

“Is she saying Nonna?” I ask Pavel. “Do you think that’s her name?”
Pavel shrugs.

“Do you think her grandparents knew mine? Should we pull up to shore?”
Pavel shakes his head. “Not yet, I’m not sure it’s safe. Let’s wait a bit longer.”

We both know we will have to move forward, that there is nowhere else to go, but I agree and fall back into the boat.

Before I fall asleep again, I look up at him. “Where are the others?”
He shakes his head, then realizes I’m still here, waiting.
“They’ll be here soon,” he says.

All those vessels that left at the same time, they were somewhere. But every time I wake up, there is only Pavel.


photograph of ocean with abstracted orange sky

Manny Moreno via Unsplash

Back home, while Pavel built boats and learned to use them, my mother was conducting research for a book on lowercase letters. As she worked on the project for years, I helped her collect endless scraps of paper, with many different sizes and types of characters, listening to her talk about how this was a book that would exist for no reason. That’s what she liked about it; she was always trying to do nothing when others were doing something, to focus on nowhere when everyone was dreaming of place.

When I told Pavel about the project on our second day in the boat, he looked confused. He didn’t say anything then, but this morning, as the water makes its lapping sounds, I wake up to his question.

“Didn’t your mother want to write about the branches?”

Our feet are almost touching against the damp wood. I look at our shoes and say nothing. I don’t know how to explain it to him, but her choice made sense to me. It seemed beside the point to study the falling, though it’s not clear how that could be true since we are here, in this increasingly shiny boat, because of it.

(I choose to think too little.)

“I’m tired, Pavel. Will you tell me a math problem?”
And he does.

'Everyone is very concerned with truth: telling it or finding out what it is. Sometimes the former without the latter, other times the latter without the former, and rarely both at the same time.'

My mom said that others wrote very well, and at length, about the falling. Mostly in the usual way. Capital letter for the beginning, lowercase all the way through to the end. They wrote out of a fierce belief in a common thing: the inverse relationship between writing and falling.

I used to think these people were very smart and brave; I still wish that I were like them. But I don’t know where the people who wrote about the falling are now. The one who’d first asked the question, the one who wrote about the mathematical pace of the decay, the one who wrote as if through a loudspeaker. None of them are here. Only Pavel is here, in a boat, looking towards shore.

Nonna is walking in circles now. Pavel stares blinking his eyes at the tin roof and mumbles. I hear numbers and the words insatiable, vegetation, underwater, shine. I know that we can’t stay here. Something will have to happen now.

“Pavel,” I ask. “Do you think the falling would stop, if we stayed in the boat?”

He looks away from the shore and back towards me. His eyes look sharp. “That’s stupid,” he says, and pauses. “But also a very good math problem.”

When I close my eyes and open them again, the shine coming from shore gets louder, the fluttering brighter.

My mother used to say that it was a mistake to show children only the meaning in letters, but not in the size of them, not in the various ways to shape them. She said one time, I think, “Everyone is very concerned with truth: telling it or finding out what it is. Sometimes the former without the latter, other times the latter without the former, and rarely both at the same time.”

I expect to see her soon.

(I choose to think too little.)

The last time I fall asleep before we reach land, I dream that my mother is on the island beside Nonna and I understand: the island is moving. Everything is. As the island moves towards what it is moving towards, the size of everything changes. Motion determines size, my mother tells me, and holds a fish bone up to the light. She opens her mouth wide and a shine comes out and I understand. We will see what things fall and what things stay in place. We will see what happens when we arrive.


Penina Eilberg-Schwartz lives and writes in the Bay Area, and is the daughter of two very different rabbis. She is the co-author of the chapbook Everything in the speaking of it (Alley Cat Books, 2019), and her essays have appeared in Literary Hub, This Recording, and elsewhere. Her first full-length project, In This Place Together (Beacon Press, 2021), came out earlier this year.