Of shipwrecks and serpents and Marilyn Monroe
There are no definitive reports as to what has happened. Some of the crew thinks it is the end of the world, others think the North has invaded or launched a tactical nuclear attack.
Dal has been at sea for what seems forever with little clue of what is happening in the rest of the world. He spends this morning sipping what is left of the coffee and staring over the cloudy vastness of the ocean, into the distant beyond where his home should be. Where it is.
Communication is knocked out. The ship’s GPS system is not responding, the satellite television in the rec room where he once watched baseball is useless now. They unlocked the safe that contained the crews cell phones only to collectively find no signal. The shortwave radio is the only thing that works, and communication is sparse and vague. The captain told Dal about the warning he received against getting anywhere near Incheon. They said it is no more and that there is no escape. Whether the captain knows more and chooses what to disclose, Dal does not know. All he is certain of is that he and the crew are alone, many kilometers away in the Yellow Sea and that catastrophe of some sort has visited the mainland. That was one month, two weeks, sixteen letters, and seventeen suicides ago.
The original crew of 118 abandoned the rig after a few days. Dal was a safety officer on the oil rig before he began to advise the captain. He is sure the captain confides in him because of his age. Dal is at least thirty years older than everyone except for the captain. Everyone on the rig.
There was a vote and they decided to leave the rig and split up to find answers. 70 men went to Busan and 38 set out in search of supplies from the outlying islands and other moored or empty ships. Overnight oil workers became sailors. It was Dal who had advised the captain that one ship should try Busan where there was a large military base. One ship with most of the workers from the oil rig would set off for Busan and the other ship would wait behind, checking on the many islands spread along the coast. Dal had wanted to go on the ship to Busan, but the captain refused. The next day the captain received a message in Morse Code. The ship had been lost.
A week after the message, a Korean Coastguard Cruiser drifts past, burning. For a moment, Dal’s heart skips a beat because he believes it’s the ship that went to Busan. But it’s not –it’s larger.
The men gather, kicking flakes of rust over the rail, and watch as the massive grey cruiser glides past. Its hull and deck are charred black from the fires. Oily smoke seeps out of port holes. There is no sign of damage other than the fires, no sign of warfare. There are also no signs of life. No bodies or blood. The captain stands still as a mountain, his hands clasped behind his back. He nods after it moves past. He is tall and gaunt.
“But what if there are survivors?” the first mate, Min, shouts.
“They would be jumping overboard by now,” says the captain. He peels his eyes away from the floating wreckage and looks towards Min. Beneath his eyes rest bags of puffy skin that have formed on top of one another. Dal can’t imagine him asleep. He can’t imagine him anywhere but here. The captain’s beard is grown out in thin patches. He smokes incessantly.
“How do we know there aren’t survivors below deck?”
He turns away from Min, briefly nodding at Dal before fixing his gaze once more on the passing ship.
“The smoke would have killed them by now. The rescue boats are gone. Look. Perhaps they could abandon ship. Perhaps they are on an island nearby,” Dal says this to Min but loud enough for everyone to hear.
The captain lines all the men up on the deck after the evening rations. They stand at attention with their feet a meter apart, their hands to their sides. The captain strolls between them, considering their faces as Min and Dal stand to the side of the captain. The men stare straight ahead as they did in their compulsory military training after high school. For most of them it wasn’t long ago. Still, Dal gets the feeling that everyone is pretending that they are prepared, even the captain who was until recently the managing foreman on the rig who had spent his youth in the Navy.
Dal’s mind wanders as the captain tells the crew that all they have is hope. He thinks about his wife and her willingness to see the good in people. He wonders if she believes he has lived. What does she tell their children? He wonders what she tells their girls about him.
Soon after the sun sets a young man from Daewoo throws himself over the edge. One of the sentries saw him crawl over the railing and slip into the ocean, down there into the impenetrable darkness. The sentry stutters as he says the young man wept while clutching the rail and then he just let go and stepped back. They had been in primary school with one another. Their searchlights flicker, stretched out, over the dark choppy waters. Dal points at the shifting darkness and shouts but there is no sign of the sailor; he is gone, down there in a forever night.
Dal found the letter –the letter the young man pushed under the door of his cabin. His name was Han. He was seventeen. In the letter, he begged forgiveness from Dal and the captain for his cowardice in death. He said that he knew his family was dead. He claimed that Jesus had returned and that the book of Revelations had begun. Dal had never been a religious man. The letter claimed that the first seal had been broken and that evil would rein over the earth. He finished the letter with some scripture Dal was unfamiliar with. He did not sign it.
In the first month sixteen others had done the same. Eighteen suicides and seventeen letters. Why did they give them to me? Dal thought. Is it because I am the oldest? Is it because I am the closest thing to a physician left? All of them read nearly the same way: different ideas of how the world has ended and entirely hopeless. Dal keeps them all together, bound with a blue shoestring.
After number seventeen the captain called the crew onto the deck. He asked that those who wished to be off the ship to step forward and they would be allowed to stay on the next island they found. He asked that no one else commit themselves to the sea. Dal thought about how it would be to step forward. No one stepped forward. That night another man, an engineer from Seoul, disappeared. Even though he left no letter, Dal knew where he went.
Today the ship is dropping anchor outside of an island believed to be Deokjeokdo. It is the closest Dal has been to the mainland and tensions among the crew are high. It has been weeks since the smoldering coast guard ship slipped past them. Some of the men want to go back to the mainland regardless of the consequences. Dal thinks about mutiny often. He is aware of the darkness and desperation in these sailors’ hearts, acutely aware of the darkness in his own. Each island they land on, it only gets worse. More questions than answers.
The island looks small under the low cloud shelf. The captain orders Dal to take a landing party and search for whatever resources may have been left on the island. He surveys the crew and who finished their two years’ service. They all look concerned but not enough to be brave. He selects the ones who have had the most sleep. The ship is low on fuel and food and cigarettes. The rest of the crew will try to extract whatever they can from the few ferries moored off the coast.
Dal surveys the island through squinted eyes as spray blows up from the ocean. The dented aluminum skiff smacks against the waves. The captain has ordered to them to take however many survivors, along with provisions and anything of value. There have never been any survivors. He assigns one of the loaded firearms to Dal. The captain keeps the other. There were three but Min took the other revolver when he slipped quietly into the sea two weeks ago.
The tide is out when the young men tie off to what is left of a dock. There are a few smashed boats on the beach. Garbage and empty dented cars are abandoned about the street as if a giant child has spilt its sack of toys. There are few stores –mostly convenience marts and little eateries open only during the vacation season. There is broken glass, splintered in panes, and covered in the sea air, cast about the chipped concrete thoroughfare. Plastic tables are still set out, covered in bird shit and dust.
The quiet utility lines follow the pock marked road along the rocky coast before abruptly shifting through the trees and towards the colorful pensions and motels. Birds and gulls line the busted-out lampposts. They screech and caw at their arrival, beating their wings back and forth before puffing their white feathery chests out, shaking their bold little pill shaped heads. It reeks of ammonia from the shit. There is no sign of other humans though a few dogs bark. They rush out of hiding and then scatter, tails tucked between skinny legs.
Dal tells them to stay together and walk in the middle of the road. They are nervous, heads jerking at the slightest sound. They clench their jaws, their hands.
“Someone has already been here,” Young-tek says. He is one of the six young men. He looks around scratching the back of his neck. He is taller than the rest of the group. His parents made him work on the oil rig over the summer in between college semesters. He studied economics.
There are bodies in one of the stores. Someone placed them next to one another, arms crossed over their sinking chests. It is impossible to know how they perished. What is left has begun to decompose. Their skin is a deep violet to black. Bones seep through the decay. One of the men walks to the other side of the road and retches. Dal doesn’t look to see who because he can’t take his eyes off bodies.
Weeds and grass are reclaiming the pensions where people used to vacation. The outside eating areas are overgrown -faded plastic furniture buried under tall sharp grass. A fire engine has rammed into a restaurant. It hangs outside of a building that looks to have been burned badly. The truck is charred and missing its tires. It was probably the only one on the island. There is more broken glass and fragments of brick where it impacted the building.
Dal looks for blood but finds nothing. The men salvage a couple of the metal axes but nearly everything on the truck and in the deli was destroyed in the fire.
“Remember, we look for dry goods. Rice, cereal, noodles, and water.” He tries to make his voice authoritative, fatherly, steady. No one says anything back.
There are messages scrawled in multiple colors of spray paint across the broken store fronts. Dal knows they are written in English, but he doesn’t know what they mean.
Young-tek knows enough to make out a word here and there. He stands in front of one of the messages, shielding his eyes with a hand against the rising sun.
“This one says something about food. I’m not sure though. I can make out a few of the words but they don’t make any…” His voice trails off until the silence is punctuated with a sound. Their bodies are motionless while their eyes which roll around. An empty can falling on the ground? Could it be a cat or a dog? A ghost?
A man pops out of the second story window. His face is smeared with dirt and he is shirtless, his hair and beard matted. He spits and hisses. He shakes a knife at the group of men before retreating inside.
They find him on the bottom level of the building which was once a 7-11. He is a foreigner, a westerner. The store has been ransacked. There is a barricade of toppled, bent shelves. The glass refrigerator doors are all smashed out along with the windows. The walls are covered in English words and different symbols. The men overwhelm the man and bind his hands together. He rambles and yells as Dal tries to question him.
Young-tek tries to talk to the man but the foreigner speaks too fast. He laughs and nods, scrunching his face up. He smells like piss, begins to sing. The birds screech louder.
“Where are they?” Dal says, pushing him out onto the street. He pulls a knife out of his pants pocket and unfolds it; presses the blade against the stranger’s face. The man’s filthy body goes limp, but he still speaks nonsense. Dal kicks him in the stomach, twice. He coughs and dry heaves, sucks in the dust and coughs harder. The rest of the search party quietly watch through the jagged windows as Dal drags him to a dilapidated chain-link fence. He binds his hands to it and walks back toward the store.
There is more food in the 7-11 than any of them have seen in weeks. There are noodles, anju, candy, chips, cases of bottled water, sacks of dried beans, containers of bean paste and cartons of cigarettes. Dunhills. Even some beer. Everyone stops and smokes a cigarette, laughing nervously while trying to not look at the foreigner tied to the fence. In the other stores, they find bags of rice and some kitchen wares. The men’s spirits are high as the foreigner struggles outside.
One of them says something about the North using an EMP to knock out our power. Ji is very young and fresh out of his service before going to work on the rig. He says they trained for it; that it would knock out our communications and then attack.
“The world would come to our defense. Think of what the Americans would do to them,” Young-tek unconsciously glances at the man tied to the fence outside.
“America and China.” Dal feels a little more certain as he says it.
“Japan,” Young-tek says and then smiles. A few of the other men spit on the floor and snort.
“If this is the case then we won’t be out for much longer,” Dal says and some of the men nod and laugh.
The foreigner laughs as they bind his hands together and drag him back to the skiff. There is a large, sun-bleached mural painted on one of the buildings. It’s of a giant squid pulling a whaling ship under water. Its tentacles curl out of the water, clutching grim sailors who pull and stab at it with hooks and spears. Its giant beak is open, ravenous, and its angry eye watches, half submerged, as the gruesome scene unfolds. Their prisoner begins to struggle when they get closer to the ocean. He drops to the ground, finally, braying in English and pulling. Dal orders the men to put the rope around his neck. Young-tek tells everyone to stop.
“Wait! Ajoshi, he is saying ‘her’ over and over again. And something else. I can’t understand it.”
They stop and stare at each other. The birds caw, dropping down onto the beach as the tide pulls back over the sharp rocks and sand. The island is a series of densely covered hills. They look like green varicose veins rising out of the sea. The sun has burned off the morning fog and the dragon flies are now buzzing around, bouncing up and down on the salty breeze that blows in from the sea. The foreigner lies on his side, his face covered in sand, neck bulging from the rope.
“What does ‘her’ mean? Why does he say it over and over?” Dal asks Young-tek, kneeling in front of the man.
“It means girl but like when a girl owns something.”
“He’s nuts. Why don’t we just leave him here? We got what we need.” One of the other crew mates, Doohon, says this with a grin. He slaps a pack of cigarettes on his forearm before unwinding the cellophane wrapper.
“The captain told us to take what survivors we fou-”
“But seriously, this foreigner is another mouth to feed. He offers us nothing. How do we even know he is talking about a woman?”
The foreigner repeats the word. His body spasms, seizes with each annunciation. It has become a chant –a mantra- “her… herr… hurrrr…”
Doohon kicks him hard in the stomach. Dal draws the revolver and points it at the young man. He has never pointed a gun at anyone before. He has never even been in a fight before. The smile falls from Doohon’s mouth, cigarette stuck to his bottom lip.
“You will stop it.” He knows the men hear his voice tremble. He hopes they will believe it is anger and not fear.
Doohon begins to speak but the older man speaks over him: “You will stop it. We follow captains orders. Anything else is mutiny and mutiny is not tolerated. This is our survival.”
His eyes don’t leave Dal as he bends down to pick his cigarette up from the sand. Doohon sullenly takes a drag before he flicks it into some scraggly bushes. Dal holsters the gun.
Without taking his eyes off Doohon he reaches down and pulls the foreigner up. He thinks of his daughters and wife for the first time in weeks. He thinks of them hiding out in some office-tel. His daughters, still in their teens, hiding in some pension room with no furniture where foreigners vacation and fornicate and fight and sleep off their hangovers. Since the news of no news, he has pushed them out of his mind. He knows they are safe.
The men load the boat and then follow the foreigner, tied off like a dog, back down the road past where they found him. He stumbles and rants, until they come upon the metal frame where a pavilion once stood. In front of a destroyed fireworks store is a large fiberglass effigy of a blonde woman. She is posed holding her skirt down against an invisible breeze drafting upward. The foreigner shouts and then extends his hand.
“What the hell is this?” A few of the men walk around it, inspecting and snickering.
“It’s Marilyn Monroe,” Dal says. “She was a movie star. Seven-year Itch.”
Some of the men laugh harder, covering their mouths. They are unable to unscrew the bolts holding her onto her concrete perch. After much protest and confusion on behalf of the foreigner, a few of the men use the axes to pry her away. They pour sweat in the late afternoon sun, pushing her back and forth before she snaps free at the ankles. They carefully lay her on a discarded wooden pallet and use some of the canvas from the pavilion to drag her down the street and back to the dock.
Dal begins to get worn down on the way back. It’s the nerves. It’s the idea of someone watching him as he drags off a statue and a madman. Are they thanking him or are they waiting for an opportunity. Where did all these people go? He reaches up and feels the leather of the holster on his hip. The wind blows through a large fan next to an empty table, toppled over on its side. Bees hover around it.
Dal is not the first to see a man struggling with the lock on the boat as the search party gets closer. The man puts his weight against a bar next to the onboard motor. Three of the men rush him before Dal can react. He shouts after them, trying to jog and draw the pistol at the same time. The man drops the crowbar and looks at the water before running down the dock. He trips on the uneven planks before Yoo-won grabs him by the shoulders and drags him to the ground.
Only when Dal gets closer does he understand him. The man begs them to stop beating him in broken Hangul. He is another foreigner. The men cease their kicking when Dal makes it to him.
“What happened here?” Dal pulls out the gun again, emboldened, and levels it at the thief. He winces, holding his sandy arm up. The rest of the crew stand around him. “Who else is here?”
“Left,” he says, struggling with the accent.
“Who else is here?” Young-tek repeats the question in English.
“Gary,” he points to the man sitting by the Marilyn statue, unattended. He doesn’t so much as flinch to the sound of his own name. He points to himself like a caveman. “Me.”
“What happened?” Young-tek says again.
The man shrugs, shakes his head. He is terrified. There was a warning; orders to return to the mainland and that the islands were not going to be safe. He is from New Zealand. His name is Leon. The two men were English teachers from Seoul on holiday. He and Gary, an American, went camping and when they came back people were mostly gone.
Dal thinks he is lying. It is obvious the two foreigners know each other. He says Gary began acting strange and became violent. He asks Young-tek to save him. He says he wants to go home. He stops talking when Dal tells him no.
Doohon binds Leon’s hands and feet and drags him onboard the boat with Gary and Marilyn and the plunder. Leon begins to weep as Young-tek starts the engine. The skiff struggles under the weight, away from the island and Leon’s head droops down, bouncing with the sobs absorbed by the crashing sea and the churning motor. Gary nods, watching.
He is curious and sympathetic, like a child watching an animal die in the zoo. None of the men say anything. Everyone just holds onto the sides and braces against the waves that jostle their craft. Dal begins to feel very small.
The captain orders them to be locked in separate cargo holds below deck. Gary begins to scream as Joon drags Marilyn away. Dal convinces the captain to keep Gary and her together. Gary seems very happy with this. Leon says nothing as two men take him by both arms and deposit him into the cargo hold on the other side of the ship. He sits in the corner, dejected.
The captain surprises Dal from behind. He did not hear him enter. He has been watching Leon. Dal briefs the captain about the island even though he has heard the story already. He smokes and nods, his bloodshot eyes glued to Leon.
“Do you believe him?” he says finally, exhaling from his nostrils.
“I believe we are getting a version of the truth. But not the whole truth. No.”
“I’ve never tortured a man before.”
“I don’t believe we need to torture him, sir. I think that he will give up what he is hiding in due course.” Dal is alarmed by the captain’s suggestion.
“Time? You think we have time? You think that what you brought from the island is going to keep us?” He takes a step closer and lowers his voice. “That might be two weeks? A week? I do not know. Not long enough. The men will turn before long and there will be madness. If they are hungry, we will be the first to die.”
“You have heard rumors of mutiny?”
“I don’t need to hear it. Time is against us. Was there anything left on the island? Should we send another party?”
“We covered all the buildings. There is another municipality on the other side-”
“The other party found nothing. It was all burned. There was evidence of violence. Bodies. Looting. It is too close to the mainland. We must know what has happened.”
“He will talk.”
“What about the other man named Gary? You say he is deranged?”
“Completely. He is in love with a statue. He is only complacent while around it. He threatened us with a knife but was very agreeable once we bound him. The two men know each other, these two. They were teachers. There has to be something they are not telling us.”
“Could it be that this Gary is responsible for the violence on the other side of the island?”
“I find it highly unlikely, captain. He’s an idiot.”
The captain nods, lighting another cigarette. The two walk without speaking through the engine room, to the other cargo hold where Gary is held with Marilyn. Inside, Gary has propped her up in a corner. He stands in front of her, singing. One arm is crossed over his chest while the other clutches at his throat. He has been cleaned and is dressed in some clothes found on the island.
“This man is unwell,” the captain says after a few moments.
“Indeed.” Dal replies as Gary turns around and waves before touching her face.
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t think it has to do with medicine.”
“Not with this shithead. What do you think happened?”
Neither one of them say anything for a while. “I don’t know. If the North invaded, we would see more ships. If it were a reactor like Fukushima, we wouldn’t have lost communication. One of the men suggested use of an EMP device and invasion during the confusion. Still, we would have heard something by now. Some resistance or-”
“Some resistance?” he asks.
Neither of them speak until Dal asks him for a cigarette.
“Do we have enough fuel to reach one of the Chinese ports to the South? The risk may-”
“No. We are nearly out of fuel.”
“What do you mean?”
“We need to find an island. Somewhere with crops planted. Something--”
“I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s the mainland. What can we lose? There is nothing left here or on any island. Even if we run out of fuel, we’ll eventually hit land. At least we have a chance. Anything is--”
“I saw bodies this morning floating in the water.”
“But…” His voice trails off. He just nods and watches as Gary begins to sing again.
That night Leon escapes. He finds a way out of the cargo hold. No one knows how though the captain tasks Dal to investigate the matter. He finds that one of the two boats is missing before he finds the sailor’s body. The young man was ambushed from behind with something heavy, most likely a hammer or a wrench.
Everyone lines up on the deck in front of the dead sailor, Kim Jongseung. There is a white sheet draped over him like they do in the movies. He was 23. He was from Chungju.
Everyone tells each other he was a good man. The men are silent as the captain gives a short eulogy. Gary has been drug from his cell and is shackled. He looks very serious, not taking his eyes from the white sheet.
At the end of the eulogy some of the men hoist Jongseung’s lifeless body and commit him to the sea. The captain walks past his men, viewing them out of the corner of his eye, taking stock of their deportment. More than a few of the men glare at Gary. Dal knows what is in their hearts. Gary will not survive long. Men searched for hours through binoculars for traces of the boat or Leon. There was no sign. Leon will not survive long either.
“Captain, permission to speak?” Young-tek steps forward.
“Permission granted, sailor.”
“I suggest we execute the other prisoner, sir. He is a threat to our security and a threat to our livelihood.” Young-tek’s eyes are bloodshot. No doubt he was mourning the loss of his friend.
“And how would you have us execute this man we have taken aboard, sailor?”
Young-tek’s brow furrows. “Sir, I don’t know. We could shoot him or throw him overboard.”
Dal would rather him be shot. He must die but throwing a man alive overboard is too much. He is ashamed of Young-tek but knows that Gary must die. No more men can be at risk. Dal thinks about his girls being somewhere safe, away from God or EMPs or fascists.
He imagines his wife telling them that they were safe. He imagines them dead and grey under white sheets in a morgue, stacked on top of one another. He would volunteer to shoot him. Dal, a safety officer. The only one who knew first aid. He would kill Gary; he who had never fought, he who had never even punched another person. His heads spins when the Captain speaks.
“So, we take this man from his refuge only to murder him on our vessel?”
“Sir, what I suggest is not murder.”
The captain stops in front of the young man. “What is it then?”
The captain slaps Young-tek across his face. The young man flinches -Dal flinches. He sets his jaw and looks past the captain, towards home, maybe away from home. The captain hits him again, harder. Young-tek loses his balance falling back. He scrambles to get back to his feet. The captain moves close to his face but doesn’t say anything. He just stands there, chest heaving until he spins away.
Some of them scowl, some just look down, averting their eyes from the captain. Young-tek stares forward, his face red and beginning to swell.
“I want two sentries at a time. No one alone. I want eyes on that sea at all times. If we see Leon we will apprehend him and justice will be meted out. Until then, carry on.” He walks with his hands behind his back, drawing to a halt in front of Gary, who is staring at some gulls perched on the railing. They squawk at him, heads cocked, their tiny black eyes darting from side to side.
The captain has assigned Young-tek to guard Gary. He has done this, in part, because Young-tek knows more English than anyone on the ship. Dal believes he has also done it to shame the young man –a step he wished would have been avoided.
It has been three days since Leon has escaped and there has been no sign of him. It is during the afternoon rations when the birds begin dying. They begin to see them wash up against the ship. There is a blanket of them floating. Patches of sea emerging through their wet feathered ranks. They fall onto the deck with muted thuds. Men cover their faces. The ship is not that close to the mainland. The birds are swept into piles on the deck and pushed overboard. The smell is nearly overwhelming.
Dal goes below deck to check on the prisoner. It is part of his routine now –he goes by every three hours and checks on Gary and Young-tek. When he approaches the door to the cargo hold, he notices that Young-tek is asleep. His chin is buried into his neck. He jolts awake when Dal approaches, grabbing the bottom of his chair, before rubbing his eyes.
“Ajoshi. I am sorry. I haven’t been sleeping well at night.” He rubs his eyes with the back of his hands. “Any word?”
Dal shakes his head.
“I don’t even know why we ask anymore.”
“The birds have everyone on edge.” Marilyn Monroe has been laid out in the middle of the hold, Gary walks in a circle flapping his arms.
“How long has he been doing this?”
“Oh, he’s been at it for a while. He was flapping his arms before I dozed off. I yelled at him when he began to move her but it’s pointless. Yesterday he was trying to feed her some of his rice. He cried as he did it.” Young-tek says nothing more. They both stand in silence as Gary silently flaps around the motionless body of Marilyn Monroe.
“He couldn’t have always been like this.”
“Some people are just born this way. Maybe he just snapped after the event.”
“The event.” Young-tek repeats. “Any ideas about the birds?”
“The captain thinks we should find an island soon and wait there for rescue.”
“For rescue,” Young-tek says.
That night while making his rounds Dal sees him, the outline of him, standing next to the rail. The ship is anchored to save fuel. The moon slips in and out of clouds. The sea is ink.
“Trouble sleeping?” he asks as Dal gets close.
“Yes,” he says. “I haven’t slept the last two nights. If I do drift off, it is only for a few minutes and then I wake up.”
“A few minutes of bliss.” His teeth reflect the light from the moon. His smile fades as he nods. “We are out of fuel.”
“When the engine is turned on tomorrow morning it should start but it won’t run for long. We have come to the end of our rope.”
“How close is the nearest island?”
“Not close enough.” He lights a cigarette and nudges a bird carcass off the deck and into the ocean with his foot. They are both silent for a while, listening to the wind and the sea. It is vacuous without the sounds of the sea birds and the hum of the ship. There is nothing but a gentle and empty back and forth. The light from the moon shimmers over the water, gradually dissipating into tomorrow.
“It’s the mainland. You know by now, we have already lost everything.”
“The current could pull us away. We could drift out further, away.”
“But maybe we wouldn’t.” He says this and the captain turns to him.
“When I was a boy, my grandfather was a fisherman. He would go out for weeks at a time; no GPS -none of this shit. Just his maps and stars and nets and his spears. They would drag the sea for fish and salt them right there on the deck. On the last days, they would keep what they had fresh and bring it back to the mainland. His father died on the sea, his mother –my great-grandmother- was taken away to the comfort houses. My grandfather was an orphan of the sea.”
Dal imagines the men when they learn about the fuel.
“My grandfather was killed by a krait. He was bit on the hand. The serpent. Scourge of fishermen.”
“We feared them as children. Your grandfather died from a bite?” Dal has never seen one.
“They would get caught in the nets and have to be cut out. He was an old man, and he perished at sea. I had not been born yet. My mother said the poison works very fast. The other fishermen said that in the end he just stepped overboard.”
Dal knows. The captain drops his cigarette over the side of the boat. “I want you to raise the anchor. It’s the only chance you will have. Leave your fate to the currents and the tides. That is your heart, after all.”
“But captain y-”
“I relinquish my control of this vessel to you.” He drops his gun and kicks it away.
“I don’t want it.”
“I don’t care.” He just stands there.
Dal’s stomach grinds with hunger.
“You’re just going to leave?”
“I have no other place to go.”
The captain strips down, his arm shaking with the weakness of his weight against the rail. He stands there, undressed, naked in the moonlight. Dal can’t think of anything else to say to him. He doesn’t even understand how to explain why he should not commit suicide, so he just watches as the captain gulps the air. He stops and cries for a moment. He then lets go and turns around and is gone.
The sea is quiet. He does not hear him hit the water. It’s over. He knows this now. There will be anger and confusion when the men realize the ship is out of fuel. There will be mutiny.
Young-tek is sleeping. Without waking him, Dal opens the door to Gary’s cell. He is awake, sitting cross-legged next to her. He peers up but says nothing. The only light is cast down from a single porthole. It makes a perfect circle on the floor.
“Ajoshi, what are you doing?” Young-tek murmurs. A thin blanket falls away from him as he stands up.
“Return to your quarters.” Dal knows he won’t.
“Ajoshi, come away from there.” His voice awkwardly assumes an edge of authority, of aggression.
“The captain is dead. The ship is out of fuel.”
“The captain is dead? What do you mean?” Young-tek’s confidence falters.
“He cast himself overboard. We are out of fuel. Hope is lost, boy.” Dal wraps his arms around Marilyn and begin to drag her out of the cargo hold.
“Ajoshi, what are you doing?”
“I’m going to put Gary and Marilyn in the lifeboat and I’m going to give them a chance.”
“Are you mad? You can’t- we need that boat.” His voice crescendos as he rushes towards Dal. He knows better than to fire a gun below the deck but does so anyway. The young man doubles over, one hand clutching his guts and the other clutching at the safety officer.
There are no sentries on the deck. They will be awake soon; the captain’s watch is nearing its end. Dal figures, muffled as it was even, the gunshot could have woken someone.
Dal and Gary roll Marilyn into the boat. They work in silence. Once Marilyn is safely in the boat, Gary stands there looking at him with his head cocked. Dal’s hands rest on the two guns jutting out of his belt. The ambiguous purple splotches on the deck transform into dead gulls as the sun rises from far, far away.
In Gary’s language, he says: “Thanks for the laughs.” That’s what Dal imagines. That’s what he hears. The foreigner crawls in the boat, cradling the fiber-glass effigy across his lap. Dal works quickly to lower the boat, running back and forth between cranks. By the time he is finished the sun is up and he hears the men stirring on the ship.
“Soon there will be vengeance,” he yells at the foreigner and Marilyn as they are carried away on the waves, rippling like little fingers, pulling their small vessel away from the ship and into the purchase of a new, malevolent world.