I have one job.
Red 1 is a red buoy that sits a mile offshore. It’s about a story high and it has a bell at the top. A family of Osprey live up there during the summer. My job is to check on Red 1 every other week to make sure it’s running well, to make sure its bell can still do the dong, dong back and forth over each wave. That’s the notable part of my job, and the other, more Sisyphean part is that I must make sure the base is clean. “Clean,” as clean as it can get.
I’ve been managing Red 1 for about three years now, and for all three of those years there’s been a stubborn patch of barnacles that will not move no matter what kind of tool I use to extract them. I stopped trying after a year and a half which, as I see it, was too much time trying. On me and Red 1’s second year anniversary I noticed that new barnacles were growing up the sides of the older ones, and I stopped to ponder the meaning of their existence. That pondering, I soon realized, was no more worthwhile than my cleaning of the buoy’s base.
From shore on no-wind mornings Red 1 looks frozen in ice, and on these mornings I like to pretend that it finally made its way to somewhere more interesting — to the northern reaches of Greenland, perhaps, and I like to pretend that my eyes are watching its future present. On these mornings the clouds usually fuse with the water, turning the whole scene into a blue-grey washout, and turning Red 1 into a teeny sketch on the horizon, its bell song flattened by the lack of moving air.
Yes, I have thought of freeing Red 1 before, but that would require a lot of effort and cause a lot of ruckus, especially with the Osprey residents, and maybe with the Coast Guard. It would also disturb Green 1, a green buoy that works in tandem with Red 1. Green 1 is about 200 yards to the right of Red 1, and I was never approached to maintain it, which can only mean that someone else maintains Green 1, or Green 1 maintains itself. Red 1 and Green 1 form the outer imaginary gate of the harbor, so removing Red 1 would surely cause confusion.
A few days ago I got curious and inquired about Green 1.
“Do you know who maintains Green 1?” I asked my neighbor.
“Green what?” he said.
“The buoy,” I said. “The green one out there.” And I pointed to it.
He said no.
Then I figured I’d asked the wrong guy. I called my boss.
“Who manages Green 1?” I asked over the phone.
“No one,” my boss said. “At least not yet.”
“You want me to do it?” I asked, fully not wanting to do it.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said. “We just found someone who’ll start next week.”
“How long has it been unmanaged?” I said.
“About three years,” he said.
“Just the way of things I suppose.”
I realized that it would only be ethical to free Red 1 if I contacted the keeper of Green 1 and schemed with them. Luckily my next shift happened to line up with theirs, and the water was flat and the air was clear and I saw the little boat next to Green 1 in painfully breathtaking dizzying detail, and I finally got to see the keeper rise from the boat’s console and step onto Green 1. I wanted to shout at them but I didn’t want to startle them, so instead I rocked my weight back and forth at the base of Red 1, my arms locked within its frame, waiting in motion until its bell cried out with the first dong, dong of the still morning. I watched the keeper of Green 1 turn their head in curiosity, and I watched the ripples from Red 1 make their way across the channel with mathematical symmetry, like radio waves that signal “Hi,” ones we both could see. And what relief I felt when I saw the keeper mimic my actions a few moments later, the dong, dong of Green 1 sounding just as close as the dong, dong of Red 1, their voices merging in the middle of the channel. At this point I wasn’t so sure what to do next — I didn’t want to disturb Green 1’s maintenance, and I had already completed my checkup of Red 1. So I got in my boat and released it from the buoy, and I bid farewell to my new coworker with an almost desperate wave.
The following two weeks were defined by a nor’easter of disturbing magnitude. Red 1 and Green 1 were out of sight for days, sucked away in a funnel of rain and mist and whitecaps that seemed to flip the sky upside-down. I never worried much about these storms, they came and they went, but this one was different, this one felt all too personal, and I found myself thinking all too much about the end of days and the end of things. I was in fear, but I did not view this fear as darkness. This fear had a grayer complexion like that of the churning water, and so I chose to view each whitecap as a signal, and each gust of wind as an utterance from a faraway voice. A code begging to be decoded.
This is how I kept myself busy.
I also wondered about the keeper of Green 1, and if they were experiencing the same fear that I was. But I had no way to ask, and eventually I imagined that they were just as fearsome, merely just to comfort myself. I still hoped for the moment when we’d reunite again across that 200-yard distance, when the storm would lift and bring color and noise back to the channel. There would be a conversation between the two of us, we’d talk about the storm and barnacles and Osprey, and we’d admit our fears, and then we’d head back into the harbor and grab a drink and talk and laugh like old friends.
The nor’easter did not take Red 1 or Green 1 when it departed. On the day of its clearing the buoys stood triumphantly in their spots, and the life returned to the channel, much like I’d predicted. When I arrived at Red 1 I noticed it had lost its Osprey nest. All that remained were a few loose sticks and a rogue feather. The departure of the Osprey reminded me of the reluctant barnacles, and they too had ceased their reluctance, because upon my inspection they were nowhere to be found. The bell of Red 1 was intact of course, yet its inhabitants had moved on in silence, their goodbyes swallowed by the tempest. In this moment I considered that Red 1 may no longer be Red 1, not without its living tethers, but I then I remembered that I myself am one of its living tethers, so maybe it wasn’t so different after all.
I waited too long for the keeper of Green 1 to appear on their skiff. I paced around Red 1’s base pretending to inspect its tower, thinking that the next time I’d glance west I’d see a disturbance in the waves. Such a disturbance never came, and I went home with a longing in my heart that I cannot put into words. But there will be another time, there must.
That night I was summoned out of bed by an incoming call.
Red 1 had decided to depart as well, and I was berated for failing to inspect the chain earlier that day, something I had forgotten due to the other distractions (and of course the waiting). My heart sunk but my soul rose. Red 1 was tethered no more, and neither was I. The night was new, and I resigned my position over the phone, half asleep. When I closed my eyes again I saw Green 1 alone in the channel, and then I saw Red 1 drifting to the edge of the world. And then I saw Green 1’s keeper in their skiff looking right at me, the nor’easter reflected in their eyes.
“When the sky becomes the sea, what is to become of us?” they asked.
“I know this,” I said as sleep drowned me. “We become the same.”
And in the morning, standing by the shore, I could only hear one bell.
Blair Reilly is afraid of fiction yet attempts to write it anyway. She is inspired by nautical miles, her jealousy of scientists, her failed crushes, and quantum entanglement. She studied Writing and Rhetoric at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
© 2022, Blair Reilly