Nobody wants to fall overboard fully clothed into the ocean anywhere in the world, even close to shore—it’s such a surprise for the body to find itself in this new element. One moment, the man is on a bench in a boat, chatting at the stern rail while rigging his lines, and the next he’s in another world, with gallons of salt water, numbing cold, and the weight of wet clothes making it hard to swim.
Our boat was still slowly put-putting along, with little waves gently slapping against the hull. There were rocky islets in the distance that would soon be awash, while terns and seagulls circled overhead to see what we had caught, as if we were a trawler. In this case, a lobster and two crabs. Which is what was in the pot when we hauled it up, the two of us hoisting it over the rail—because there were still two of us at that point. People seeing us might have thought we were two old friends, as we raised the lobster pot together and checked the crabs struggling and beating against the wire mesh while we lowered the heavy pot into the cockpit. He was the one who pulled the lobster out and tossed it into the bucket quickly enough to avoid its claws, which started snapping at the plastic sides. Pleased as Punch at catching a lobster, he said: Kermeur, this is my first lobster, I’m giving it to you.
Today, I couldn’t say if it was that thing he said or something else, but I know that not long afterward I was watching him flailing in the water, ignoring the splashes he was raising. Maybe he thought it was a bad joke. Maybe he thought he could make it to some rock or other that might be dry at low tide. Even the laughing terns perched on the sharp ridges of the few distant rocks jutting above the horizon seemed to think that what had just happened was normal, I mean a guy falling into cold water and trying to swim fully dressed, gasping and yelling to me for help: Kermeur, goddammit, come help me! Kermeur, what the hell are you up to? And he added “asshole” and “fucker” and “son of a bitch,” thinking this would spur me to action. No dice; that was out of the question. I could already sense that even the seagulls, looking as white and cold as nurses because they never blink, even the seagulls approved. I’ve since thought that to really understand what happened at that moment, you’d have to ask a seagull.
I stepped into the wheelhouse and pushed the throttle lever, alone now at the helm of a thirty-foot Merry Fisher as if I were piloting my own boat, sitting in the leather chair behind the salt-spotted window, the crabs lying resigned at my feet. From the outside, I’m sure people would have taken me for an old fisherman accustomed to going out on his boat every day, silent by nature and spare in his movements, while the noisy wake behind me drowned out his screams. Then I pushed the lever a little harder, and with four hundred horses propelling us, the boat and I covered the five miles to the harbor in barely a quarter of an hour. You sure can’t swim five miles, especially in water as cold as it is off our coast in June.
I moored the boat at the same place from where we’d taken it an hour earlier, Dock A, Slip 93. There wasn’t anyone, or hardly anyone, in the harbor that morning, and I behaved as if nothing were out of the ordinary. I tied up the boat as if it were mine, climbed the iron gangway to the quay, and got into my car in the parking lot. Surely, I thought, someone would have watched the whole scene from a window or behind a curtain. In the car, I remember telling myself that at that moment the whole thing was being written with black ink in someone’s observing eye.
I wasn’t surprised when the police rang at my door a few hours later. I couldn’t say if it was the gendarmerie or the national police, but there were four of them, two guys in uniform at the door and two others, a little more discreet, in the van parked at the end of the path. I must have a pretty guilty conscience to not be surprised to see the law swoop down on me like a vulture, already sinking its talons into my shoulders. And thinking back now, even if I’d seen them coming from afar, even if I’d spotted them on the highway with binoculars and figured they were coming for me, I wouldn’t have done anything different. Even if they’d been following me since dawn, I would have done the same thing, heaved Antoine Lazenec overboard the same way and brought the boat back in the same way, following the channel to the yacht harbor while respecting the green and red buoys like railroad signals, with that seagull still perched on the boat’s stern rail, maybe waiting for me to pay it to leave. As if the gull, with its round, unblinking eye, insisted on being part of the story, like an unshakable witness prepared to testify in any courthouse in the world. And I felt like telling the gull that I would go to the courthouse of my own accord, that I wasn’t planning to evade the law.
I felt like telling it that I’m a seagull too, I glide above the water, aware that I don’t have much flesh left, so I fly over the sea and the boats in the harbor, and I’m a seagull now, a seagull in the fog hanging over the port. I can make out the city starting to appear, but it seems written in a language I don’t understand, an alphabet made of renovated buildings and open windows, and it’s only on the ledges that I can see the crumbs that are left. Yeah, I’m a seagull and I’m also waiting for dawn, for people to put their garbage bins out on the street, because people here have learned that you can’t put them out overnight, that you can’t just stuff your rubbish in bags and toss them outside. No, you have to keep your bins inside all night next to your bed, to make sure no seagull comes and pecks them open. You have to live with the smell of your bins, the reek of everything prepared,digested, and discarded but that keeps on rotting beside you until dawn. That’s the price of having seagulls around here. With the police and the arrest, everything happened quietly. They said the stock phrases you use at times like that. I got my coat from the hallway and followed them without saying anything. I think it started to rain a little then, a windless drizzle that makes no sound when it hits the ground and even wraps the air in a kind of strange softness from penetrating matter and quieting it. Just as I was holding my wrists out to the cops as if it were an old habit, I took one last look around, at the ripped-up earth and the sea beyond. I told myself that I would have time to look at it, the sea, through my cell windows. Then the two cops shoved me into the back of the van and sat me on the plastic bench bolted to the sheet metal. It was uncomfortable in the van as it crossed the bridge, jolting at every pothole in a road worn by the weight of trailers hauling ten-ton boats. Looking through the rear window that the drizzle was fogging, you’d have thought the sky was trying to squeeze through the wire mesh to seek shelter too. It was like a sheer curtain drawn over the town—like our story, I told the judge—it wasn’t fog or wind, just a curtain that can’t be torn hanging between us and things.