Boy in a Boat

by Julia Strayer

Gulls scuffed and dipped over the sea at dawn, over a wooden rowboat, the horizon orange, the sky streaked pink.

The boy rowed the tiny boat he stole from an uncle who was really his father. The boy’s uncle lured his mother, took advantage. The boy refused to believe it could have happened any other way. The boy’s father never knew what his brother had done.

Gulls floated, drifted around and near the rowboat like a skirt of birds spread out the way his mother’s skirt circled when she sat on the floor and played at building castles with him.

The boy stopped rowing, by then far from shore, and rested his face on the oars and closed his eyes. Salt and breeze played at his hair, tousling and twisting as his mother had while she told stories in the heat of the day so he would sleep. Water slapped the boat; birds mumbled the day’s prayers. He rocked with the ripples, with the tide, lulled to sleep by an ocean too large.

The boy saw his mother with his uncle, the two of them against the back wall of the kitchen in the sweltering heat, the fan on the counter blowing nothing but hot air at a stack of flapping newsprint, while his mother’s skirt bunched up around her waist. His uncle’s hands: one on her thigh, one against the wall to balance as he moved, rocking, and the boy’s mother moaning like wind.

His mother caught wisps of the boy’s hair as he ran to hide. She told the boy, “It’s our secret.” A finger pressed against her lips.

When he woke, the boat seemed smaller, the sea calmer. He leaned over to see his reflection in the water. He was a man. His bride sat blinding white opposite him in the tiny boat, holding the bench seat with both hands as her skirt billowed about her, and the birds flew up off the water, as if startled. She smiled at the flurry of their wings.

Julia Strayer’s writing appears, or is forthcoming, in SmokeLong Quarterly, Post Road, South Dakota Review, Fiction Southeast, Mid-American Review, and Glimmer Train, where she placed first in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers. Her work has been anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2015. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teach creative writing at New York University.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Boy in a Boat”?

    This story was inspired by a photograph and the title of a poetry collection. The photograph, of a boy rowing a boat, accompanied a news story about migratory birds in India. The poetry collection, by Ruth Danon, is titled Limitless Tiny Boat. From there, I imagined this boy, this boat, this situation. I knew he fell asleep in the boat and woke up a man, but I didn’t have an ending. Eventually, from frustration, I wrote out the inventory I had to work with and a list of at least ten possible things that could occur next in the story. I kept reminding myself the possibilities were limitless.
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