Gwen Strauss

Papio


The book is set in 1982 against the backdrop of Guatemala’s bloody civil war, and tells the story of a young American couple, who set out on a small wooden sailboat to travel around Yucatan. When they run out of money, they naively accept a job smuggling contraband. Only later, when it is too late, do they discover that they are carrying weapons supplied by the CIA for the Guatemalan military. The story is based on my own true life experiences.

1200 to 1600. Midday watch.
No wind, just long ironed smooth ocean swells. Rolling glass mountains. Papio is surrounded by walls of water. Then she rises, lifted by a swell, moving beneath us, past us.
And I see the horizon, in every direction.
Empty sails bang and snag along the boom. Telltale at mast peak hangs limp. We drop back down into the trough.

Walker is asleep in the cabin below.
I take off my clothes: peel off wet foul weather-gear, boots, long johns, pants, socks. Smell my skin roasting in the sun, my arms dusted with white salt. Pin up my clothes to the boom. They have their own smell: rotting vinyl plastic, old suntan lotion, brackish water.
Scratch at my scalp. Before we set out, I braided my hair, so that it would not snarl and snake curl in the salt wind. I pinned the braids up on my head, like a helmet, thick with damp and oil. Loose strands hang in tight corkscrew curls.

Tanned between my toes. Study the muscles in my legs, stretched out along the cockpit seat. Hairy, unshaven. Bruises along my shins from banging into things. Walker would say, “you're just getting your sea legs, Nina.”
My forearms have grown strong from pulling at lines, yanking tight the running backstays, hauling down and changing sails. Hands are callused, fingers have cuts that sting in the salt water. A red rash on my bottom from sitting in wet clothes and sleeping in wet wool blankets.
Stretched out on the bench. Heat bakes into my naked body. Like a clay pot, like a terra cotta earthen vessel, I want to hold the sun inside me.

1600 to 2000. Walker relieves me.
Our boat leaks. Papio is old and water seeps through her planks. A wave breaks over her deck, water rushes under, down the forward hatch onto our bed. Even the cat has given up licking himself, trying to keep dry. Pollux stays curled up under damp wool. With the changing of the guard, when we take our separate turns to sleep, he crouches miserably, close to the new body.
Pollux is the twin of Castor, the two stars that make up the horn in Taurus. They protect sailors and ships at sea. But our Pollux hates the sea.
Every day we take turns sponging out the bilge. Or the water will rise above the floorboards and lap at our feet. I lift the floorboards of the cabin. Water sloshes with the delayed unsteady rhythm of the boat's lurch and roll. I squat with a bucket braced between my knees, and a big sponge in my hand. Sop and squeeze, sop and squeeze.
Some wet labels, peeled off cans of food stored in the forward bilge, float back to where I work. I spread them flat on my knees, sweet peas on my right. Tomato soup on my left. I stamp on my forehead half an Alphabet Soup.
Each day farther out, the bilge water gets cleaner and cleaner. No need for a filter. I say anything that comes to mind. The ocean is deep cobalt.

During Walker’s day watch, I take care of household chores, and I groom. Clip nails, pick scabs. Rub on lotion. Special medicated cream on the rash.
“Diaper rash,” I say one day, breaking the silence, the monotony. “Hey, Walker, I've got goddamn diaper rash!”
“Me, too,” he says, and it's alright again. Because we both laugh.
I write in my journal. Or make up songs. It's hard to daydream about a life other than the one happening here. I am always a little frightened of the night coming, and the wind picking up. A little too frightened to daydream.
Think instead about where we've been. How far we've left to go till we make landfall.

Selected Works

Juvenile Nonfiction Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5
The True Story of a young Holocaust survivor
Children's picture book
In the early 1950s, newly built interstate highways invited Americans to travel by automobile, but the open road wasn't so open for African-Americans, especially in the South.
Until he meets Marcia, Eric doesn't speak -- the Night Shimmy does all the talking.
Poetry
Strauss explores the theme of metamorphosis in fairy tales in this collection of poetry.
a series of poems in the form of a sonnet garland
Novel
Kay koule twompe soley men li pa twompe lapli. A leaky house can fool the sun, but it can't fool the rain. --Haitian Proverb
The adventure story of a young couple who sail to the Yucatan

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