Flash Fiction: Top Deck Philosophy (813 words)

“I don’t get it,” Galen said. He smiled as he spoke and shook his head, sitting on the deck. He had one knee bent, his arm propped against it, his head leaned forward a little to catch the warm sun on his neck and shoulders. Relaxed.

Zain was staring at him. His mouth hung open, breath caught somewhere in the back of his throat as he tried to come up with another way to explain. He sat cross-legged, leaned forward over his knees earnestly. “Definitions… can never exactly be the object that they’re attempting to define.”

“But that’s what a definition is,” Galen said.

Zain stared at him harder. Then he glanced to the side for help. It was impossible to say whether he looked to Terius or Jaera, as close as they sat, with Terius sat on a low crate with his arms wrapped around Jaera while she leaned her back against it. Both of them shrugged, almost at the same moment, then broke into smiles of their own. Jaera met Galen’s eye and shook her head too.

“But a definition is not the thing!” Zain said.

“No,” Galen repeated, but he sounded like a school boy, repeating the answer he thought the teacher wanted, complete with the snickering undertone of pity for the teacher’s ignorance.

Zain bent forward, ignoring it. “If I tell you about a large vessel made of joined planks that floats and is propelled by the wind catch of a dozen canvas squares, I’m telling you…”

“About a ship,” Galen said.

“No,” Zain said quickly. “I’m telling you the definition of a ship.”

“The definition of a good ship,” Terius murmured.

Turning, Zain blinked at him.

“Some ships don’t float,” Terius told him.

Zain blinked three more times.

Jaera hit Terius lightly on the knee. “You’re not helping,” she murmured.

Zain turned away from all of them. He patted down his breeches, searching the pockets and fished out a scrap of paper. Then he searched the rest of his pockets and found a pencil stub. Holding the paper against his knee, he scratched out a few dark lines, etched in the edges, turned it a little to print the lines just so, then spun the scrap around for the rest of them to see. He’d marked out the sweep of a hull, three tall masts with full-bellied sails spaced along each of them, a pointed bow, a straight-backed stern.

Galen glanced from his face to the paper and back, questioningly. “It’s a ship.”

“This,” Zain said emphatically. “Is not a ship.”

“Right,” Galen said immediately. “It’s an orangutan.” He waved his hand and, for an instant, it wasn’t clear whether he meant the paper or the boy behind it. Terius bit down on a laugh, so that it came out as a breath against Jaera’s hair.

“It’s the drawing of a ship,” Zain told Galen.

“Right,” Galen said.

“Not a ship,” Zain repeated.

Galen didn’t say anything, just sat still, hiding his growing smile behind his knuckles.

Zain waited.

Galen pulled his hand away. “But it looks like a ship.”

“It’s not!”

“What does it matter?” Galen asked.

“It matters because when you’re speaking, there’s a line that gets drawn between tangible object and intangible concept and description,” Zain told him.

“According to the great philosophers,” Galen said, again in that tone that so politely painted his disbelief.

“They’re called great for a reason,” Zain told him. “They don’t just lie about making up statements to see who can best annoy the rest of humanity.”

“Don’t they?” Terius asked. Galen flashed him a smile. Zain glared, but it was too pleasant to be taken seriously. He spun back toward Galen.

“It matters,” he said. And then he stopped, as Jaera tugged the scrap of paper and pencil out of his hands. She waved him on and he didn’t give her a second look. “That line between realities matters. Every time we speak, we’re moving across planes of existence, translating and interpreting, creating and destroying, making one thing out of another, trying to move a thought from one head to another on the ephemeral and unsteady and dubious medium of spoken word. A word is not the object. A description is not the object. That,” he jabbed a finger toward the paper in Jaera’s hand.

“Is not a ship,” she murmured.

“Thank you!” Zain said.

She put the pencil down slowly, finishing one more smudge across the paper, and turned it for the others to see. She’d extended the hull with a few strokes, drawn in a triangular nose, and freckles, and fat whiskers, then darkened the outline of the sails into ears, while she feathered the center panel into tufts of fur. “It’s a cat,” she said.

Terius laughed into her hair again. Galen hid his smile. Zain stared, then grinned, then shook his head and laughed.

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