Two weeks with a madman and nothing but cigarettes and fish soup, cold, choppy waters, and bile rising and falling within you as the ship rides the waves. Within a hundred nautical miles of the North Pole, you wonder how you agreed to this.
"Forget me, forget everything," says Sebastian, the photographer, launching into his morning pep talk. "You are not a model. You are a fisherman—who loves to smoke. Don't pose, don't act, just be, live as the fisherman." He hands you a fishing pole. "Now smoke."
The wind is fierce, your hands numb. You fumble with the lighter, drop your cigarette. The assistant passes you a lit one, unfiltered. "Watch the clothes," says the stylist. You have already burned two holes in your cable-knit sweater. Above, the mainsail flaps and lulls, the wind undecided. Blood red with giant white letters, the sail reads: Prince of Denmark Cigarettes. Everything is blood red: your clothes, your shoes, the trim of the ship. They even brought along an Irish setter, which lies limp on deck, lifting its head only to retch.
It's high summer—three AM—though it feels more like the dead of winter. Infernal days—the sun never fully goes down. It only bobs briefly on the horizon before beginning to rise again.
"Ach, das Licht!" says Sebastian. "Unglaublich schön!"
He points the camera at you, fires off a few rolls. You bite down on the cigarette and flash a smile.
"Nein! Nein!" He shakes his head, pursing his lips in that oddly German manner, and exhales. "You still don't understand, do you? None of that model crap. Simple. No tricks. Just be. Okay? Can you do that for me?"
You nod. Banners of crimson light arc over your head. You start again, staring heroically out over the water, taking a long drag, still astonished by the tobacco's foul, bitter taste. Smoke funnels out of your nostrils. You begin to cough, lightly at first, then uncontrollably, while the nausea gathers force. Soon you are hanging over the edge of the ship, moaning, eyes watering, torrents of fish soup, coffee, Saltines, half-digested seasick pills gushing out of you.
The photo team turns away, giving you a moment to regroup. The thought of smoking another cigarette sets off the gagging reflex again. You lied through your teeth at the casting—"Smoked for years," you said—when, in point of fact, you had had maybe two cigarettes in your life. At an average of eight packs a day, you wonder if cancer can strike in two weeks.
You were thrilled when you first heard about the job. The photographer was famous, cutting-edge, known for sepia-toned images of gaunt, bug-eyed girls strutting across the desert. And the money was good—your day-rate plus ten grand for every picture used. But then you began to think: Cigarettes killed your father at fifty-three, scorched his throat and lungs as if by wildfire. How could you allow yourself to promote the very thing that fucked up your life?
But here you are, nevertheless, wondering if you still have an ethical bone in your body, buffeted between waves of greed and guilt.
Off starboard a small killer whale, about the size of an SUV, rolls over on its back, showing its white belly. "Schaut mal!" cries Sebastian, pointing, frenetic. "Get him out there!" He turns to you, his eyes bloodshot and pinwheeling. It occurs to you he is either drugged or demented—perhaps both. "You—James. Get into the dinghy."
"Huh?" You want to sit down and discuss this a moment, consider all the variables, when at once you are hustled over to a small rowboat hanging off the side of the ship.
"Keep rowing," offers the assistant, handing you a cigarette. "You'll stay upright."
"What about a life-vest?" you ask, as they slowly lower you—turning a pair of cranks—into the swells. No one answers. A second whale has been spotted, the two rolling together, cavorting, displacing mountains of water. The hull smacks against the surface. The last of the rope pulls through its rings. Suddenly you are adrift.
"Okay," shouts Sebastian, "get as close to them as you can."
You begin flailing the oars, puffing madly on your cigarette, drenched in sea-spray. The dinghy bobs like a child's toy. The whales draw closer, circling, darting beneath you, as the dinghy shudders and spins and freefalls before popping up again. One of the whales glides leisurely along next to you. For a few seconds, its massive eye, glistening like crude oil, fixes on you, and you see yourself, your reflection, as the whale must see you—a helpless thing, lost, the color of fresh blood, possibly breakfast.
It gradually registers that Sebastian has been shouting at you—"More cool!"—and you realize your face is fixed in a mask of horror, the cigarette, now extinguished, dangling from your lower lip. You can see Sebastian bounding about on deck, his assistant continuously loading and feeding him cameras. Cool, you want to point out, is no longer in my repertoire.
One of the whales slaps its massive tail against the surface, dousing you in a sheet of water, then abruptly dives, followed by the other, and at once both whales are gone.
Sebastian hands the camera back to his assistant and, almost as an afterthought, waves you back to ship. For an instant, you consider going on alone, making for the nearest shore, as you stare wistfully at the charcoal smudge on the horizon.
When you look back, the deck is clear except for Nathalie, the hair and make-up artist. "Quelle catastrophe!" she shrieks. "Regarde-toi! Viens là . . . allez, vite. We must re-make you, tout de suite."
You drop anchor off the coast of a small, hilly island about the size of two city blocks—one of Denmark's Lofoten Islands—bare but for patches of gray rock and fluorescent grass. The photo team begins climbing down into the rowboats. Suddenly, on a whim, delirious to be going ashore, you leap from the deck and land hard on the dinghy below.
"You crazy or what?" cries the assistant. "Scheiße, you almost landed on me!"
Sebastian smiles. "Do it again," he says.
"Nein, Sebastian . . . " protests the assistant.
Sebastian shoots him a look. "Genug," he says as if scolding a child, then orders everyone back on deck.
Soon you are standing once more on the edge of the ship, looking down upon the bobbing dinghy, the faces of Sebastian and his assistant staring up at you—camera poised.
Idiot! And you jumped why, exactly? You light up, taking a moment to observe the cigarette, which—drawing life from your breath—appears to delight in its own destruction.
"I want to see you fly!" says Sebastian who, you realize, has let himself drift, so that an alarming expanse of water now lies between you and the dinghy.
You shake your head. "No way, man. Get closer or forget the whole thing."
You can see his jaw clench then grind as if chewing on something. "But, James," he says, "this is it! I can feel it. This is the shot. You—flying through the air like a fucking phoenix. All over Europe. Magazines, buses, billboards. Think about it. I'm going to turn you into a god." He closes his eyes, as if picturing it, nodding in appreciation.
It's ninety percent crap, but that ten percent has got you thinking. It would be something. But worth breaking a leg, going into hypothermia? Behind, you can feel the eyes of the team on you.
"Listen, James, forget it. If you don't want to do it, don't do it. Kein Problem . . . I'll just fly in another model tomorrow."
Bastard! The leap is one thing, landing quite another. Gripping the cigarette squarely between your teeth, you take three steps back and assume a sprinter's pose. "You ready?" you call out. "I'm only doing this once so you better be"—adding, under your breath, "you crazy son of a bitch."
"Ja, ja. Ready."
"Attends," cries Nathalie, running up behind you. She adds some mousse to your hair and tosses it like a salad. "Bon voyage, chéri."
As you arc out over the water, you become intensely aware of details—the hard glare, the goose bumps on the back of your neck, the taste of cigarettes and salt, the gusts of cold air rising. Arms spread wide, legs like a pendulum, you bear down on the small dinghy. With little hand movements and hip adjustments, you try to direct your fall into the black maw of the photo lens. You have, however, overshot the boat slightly. The realization comes, surprisingly, with a sense of resignation. There is really nothing you can do. Sebastian and his assistant duck, shielding themselves with their arms, as you sail by overhead. Your right foot clips the gunwale—the pain searing—which flips you end over end into the sea.
"Schweinegeil!" says Sebastian as they row up alongside you. "I've made you into a gottverdammte deity today. You hear me, James? Like Jesus or Krishna—only cooler. You'll double your rate. People will stop you on the street. You should be grateful. Hell, you should kiss my fucking feet."
The cold is so devastating you cannot speak, can barely breathe. Though numbed, you are certain your foot, or maybe your ankle, is broken. But why is no one pulling you out of the water? For an instant, you seem to have blacked out, because your reality comes shockingly back into focus.
The assistant grabs your arm.
"Einen Moment," says Sebastian.
Sebastian leans over the gunwale—to pull you out, you assume—his face inches away. "Don't look at me that way . . . with those disapproving fish eyes, you ungrateful model you"—the word contorts in his mouth like a slur. "You want magic, miracles? Well, I give it to you. Want to be rock-star hot? You got it. But don't expect it easy. Dramatic measures—that's what it takes. Nothing less. You should thank me. You understand? I have resurrected you from the ordinary. Now thank me."
"Sebastian, bitte," says the assistant. "Es ist zu kalt."
It gradually dawns on you that he is waiting for a response. Lips like jelly, you bark, "Whaaa?"
You look to the assistant, his face like that of a whipped dog, then back to Sebastian. Another minute you may not survive. Gathering yourself, you kick down sharply and lunge, grabbing hold of Sebastian's collar. His jacket—blood red with Prince of Denmark across the front—is nothing but silk and feathers in your hand. As you sink back into the water, you twist and pull.
"Hilfe!" cries Sebastian, his face deliciously horrified, camera still slung around his neck. As he grips the gunwale, the boat begins to tip.
"Mein Gott, nein!" yelps the assistant.
"The film, James! Not the film!"
You almost have him, can feel the balance begin to shift, when, all at once, the collar tears, shearing away in your hand, as tiny white feathers, like snowflakes, swirl about you and float down delicately upon the water.