By Andrea Janes
It couldn’t be a more perfect evening. The red sun is setting over the shimmering river and tingeing the sky with softness, the sky that, all day, has been perfectly blue and clear. And yet I can’t enjoy a moment of it because, from where I sit on the corrugated iron splendor of my fire escape, I can see it – the great white behemoth sitting there lazily in Red Hook harbor, listing gently from one huge bulk of its side to another. That massive marine monstrosity holds nothing but menace for me and as long as it’s within my line of vision it will go on spoiling every beautiful day. When I see it the gentle air creeps my skin with gooseflesh, I am overcome with sickness and nausea. I cannot look at it and feel anything but loathing and dread; though it may no longer induce the abject fright it once did in me, I’ll never be able to see it and feel anything but horror. Perhaps I should move to a house that does not directly overlook Upper New York Bay. It is very inconvenient to go into a cold sweat every time I spot a cruise ship in the harbor.
You know what they say about night like this, don’t you? That’s right, sailor’s delight. It would be convenient for me to say the trouble all started on a night such as this, but it didn’t. It stared in the dull, grey, dog days of August, the time when all the cheap-asses come out for their discount cruises, right in the middle of hurricane season. Do you know where the phrase “dog days” came from? From the star Sirius, the dog-star.
You learn a lot about sailor’s lore and stars and shit when you’re on a boat. That shit is real to some people. Let’s separate the myths from the facts here, shall we? The myth says that all sailors are Greeks and all cabin boys are Filipino. The first half is true, but cabin boys come from all over the world – especially Asia, yes, but they include a wide variety of person. My bunkmate, for example, was Malay. But the Greek thing is true, and is important – we’re going to come back to that. Another myth about cruise ships is that they dump all their waste into the open sea – well, actually, that part’s true, too. We hold it in a tank in the ship’s hull all days and let it out at night when the guests are sleeping. Guess whose job that is? That’s right, the cleaning crew. That would be me, vile deck-swabber at your service.
Now most of the cleaning staff come from the very upper echelons of society: that is to say, prison. The criminal to non-criminal ratio of the service staff on your average Carnival Cruise is about seven to one. That’s on an average ship. On our ship it was about a hundred to zero. I’m exaggerating, of course, but never have I met a single deckhand who hadn’t done time in one way or another. With the Russians and Asians, you didn’t even need to ask; they all had scars and tattoos that spoke of where they’d been. I asked one tall, bull-like man from Belarus what he’d done time for. With his leathery skin and sinewy muscles, he had the cold, hard look of the murderer. “Credit card fraud,” he replied, only he pronounced it “Cred-jit card frawd.” I got used to the mix of languages and accents on our floating tower of Babel, got used to not asking about the shadowy secret pasts of my co-workers (there was none of the “what are you in for” camaraderie of the yard; each man was a well of secrets).
Some say our ship wasn’t top shelf, but I say you get what you pay for. Which brings me back to the cheap-asses. Nobody liked working a ship when the cheap-asses were aboard. When you’re working a job that basically amounts to indentured servitude, tips are pretty important to you. Folks on the late-August discount cruise are not known for being generous tippers. Maybe it serves them right, then, what happened.
So by now you’re thinking well, what the hell happened? I guess I’ve set the stage enough. But one more thing before I get to the meat of this gyro: that’s right, the Greeks. I said I’d get back to them, didn’t I?
The Greeks, the Greeks, what can I say about the stoic and manly captains of the sea? It’s hard to read the Greeks because they’ll rarely deign to talk to you and even if they did, their English isn’t perfect. They know how to order the deck-hands around but ask them for anything else and they go bivalve on you – shut up like a clam. There was one I liked, though, and who was friendly to me. He was the second officer’s second mate, which is about the equivalent in prestige to being a rag boy at a car wash – which would make us deck-hands the rag, I guess – but he was kind to all his underlings and smiled when he asked them to swab the deck. (Fact: the word “swab” on a ship is still in use.) He had an unpronounceable name full of Fs and Ss, so we all just called him by the surname embossed on the gleaming tag above his lapel: Avdis.
He was the only officer-class crewman who’d ever play cards with the rest of the CC – that’s cleaning crew; try to keep up. Avdis would seize the occasion to impress us with his wide range of bawdy tales. He was a true raconteur in the old style and could spin a yarn like Arachne spun a web. He was such a loquacious guy it took me by surprise one evening when he refused to talk. More accurately, he refused to answer a specific question. This I had never known him to do.
The question was a simple one: “Anyone else hear that banging in aft deck?”
It was spoken by Yeung “Charles” Lee, who we all referred to as “Chuck” Lee, a repairman from Kowloon. “You know,” he said. “The bang bang!” Bang bang! Some of us hit the table for emphasis. Avdis sat there trying to pretend he didn’t understand. “Are you trying to sit there and tell us that engine isn’t a little fucked?” That came from Pat, an Australian. “You siding with management, mate?” Avdis went pale at this – as pale as a Greek can get, anyway, which is like a sort of a shade less than the usual brilliant copper-penny sheen of their skin normally. “What is wrong, Avi?” asked Phoc, a mellow-tempered Vietnamese dude with one of the skinniest chests I’d ever seen. Now he was looking at Avdis with concern. “Avi, tell us something about the engine,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “When’s it going to blow sky-high? I mean, are we just sailing in a floating crypt here or what?” Avdis remained tight-lipped. “Chuck Lee,” I said to the Chinaman (sorry, person of the Asian persuasion), “You must have been able to diagnose something down there, no?”
“Like what a doctor does – figure out what’s wrong.”
“Oh. Diagnose. No! That’s why I ask, stupid!”
“He’s right,” said Trang, my bunkmate. “Joe tells me same thing. He says no problem with engine. He knows.”
Joe was another engineman who played poker with us, though he was on duty that night. Joe was from Thailand and his real name was Apichatpong Natthakarn. The first time we met him and pronounced his unpronounceable name, he just looked at our faces, laughed good-naturedly, and said, “Just call me Joe.”
“Joe says there is nothing wrong with the engine.” Trang repeated.
“Look boys,” said Avi, “Officers don’t really talk much about that sort of thing.”
That was the first time he ever pulled rank on us. There was silence at the table, expect for the snap of cards as we dealt. Chuck looked at Trang. “It’s a xia.” Trang nodded. “What’s a xia?” asked Pat. Chuck shook his head. “Never mind. It’s not important.”
Avi sighed. “It’s not a ghost.”
Well now we were getting somewhere. At least I knew what “xia” meant.
“I want you to listen to me,” Avi said. “Listen very carefully. Do not ever mention this near where a passenger can hear. And don’t say anything to any officers. If you have a problem, come to me.”
“What kind of problem,” asked Phoc.
“What kind of problem,” asked Phoc.
“If anything happens, you come tell me. I mean anything. To you, a passenger, anything.”
Come to me first. That’s what he said.
Back at our cabin, Trang filled me in.
“Xia is close to a Malay word,” Trang told me. “But it doesn’t mean ghost exactly.”
“Is it more like a spirit?” I’m not sure why I said that, really. I remember thinking at the time that my question was strange. I almost felt compelled to ask it and I couldn’t tell you why. I brushed the feeling aside. Stranger things have been thought or said upon the verge of sleep.
Trang didn’t seem to find the question odd. “Not so much like a spirit or ghost but it is a thing that is not human. It is of the gods – but it is a bad god. It does bad things.”
“Is it like a fallen angel?” I asked, thinking of Lucifer. “Like a god that used to be good but now he’s bad?”
“He was never a good god. He was always bad – he was born bad. He is very powerful – very strong.”
I though about it for a minute. A powerful god, one who was born bad. One who was very strong.
It took me a minute to realize he was talking about a demon.
I wandered through the darkened corridors of the massive floating mall. That’s all it is, a cruise ship – a mall at sea. I walked over the garishly patterned carpet of the atrium, dotted with potted palms at regular intervals. The shops were dark and shuttered for the night.
I padded softly by the duty-free liquor shop in the dim light. On one of the floors above me I saw a chambermaid walking along near the railing. She smiled at me over the stack of towels she was carrying and I nodded back. As I kept walking, I realized I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or even what I was doing. “Why am I prowling along the halls? What am I doing?”
I stared at my reflection in the dark glass of the t-shirt emporium. I found myself wanting to smash the glass and take that bright white XXL t-shirt with the nautical flags and “St. Lucia” on it. Now, although I have boosted a car or two in my day, I do not suffer from the condition that compulsively makes people steal stupid junk – that sickness known as kleptomania. But all I could think of was how I wanted to grab that wide swath of fabric and choke someone with it. “I really should go out on aft deck,” I thought to myself, which was odd, because what I meant to think – if you follow me – was, “I really think I ought to go back to my room.” And then I looked up. The chambermaid was on the top floor of the atrium, about six stories above me. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what was going to happen next, but I was still too late. As I ran and tried to catch her, she smiled, put down her towels, and plunged from the balcony into a potted palm.
At first the officers assumed I had done it. I dragged her body to the security office right away because I knew better than to leave her there on the floor for anyone to see. They questioned me for the better part of an hour before I could convince anyone to go out and take a look at the tape. The security camera footage finally cleared me – I was visible down on Dolphin Deck while she was clearly seen jumping unassisted. I heard one of the security guys say to the other something about the ship Demeter. His colleague shushed him, gave me a look. I tried to look blank, tried to look like I was just a dumb American and I didn’t understand the Greek word for “ship.”
Joe played poker with us that night; Chuck had taken the graveyard shift. Joe had not been privy to last night’s conversation. Still, he must have felt something was in the air. His hand hovered over the cards for a minute. Then he pulled it back, stared at us for a minute and said, “Something happened in the engine room today.” Avi and I looked at each other. Joe continued. “Today I saw a workman hold his hand up against a burning hot pipe – like so.” He demonstrated. “We all shouted at him to stop , stop, but he does not stop! I have to grab him, take his hands – so – and take it off the pipe!” We got quiet. “And I look into his eyes and they are empty.”
“Ngan,” whispered Phoc. Joe nodded.
“I thought I was xian.”
“It means the same thing,” he said.
“What in the hell are you all blathering about?” That was Pat.
“You Asians are always superstitious,” was Avdis’ reply.
“You’re holding out Avi,” I said.
He said nothing.
“Fine. I guess we’ll just wait til something bad happens, then call you. What should we be on the lookout for? Fire? Plague? Death?”
“Beware the man who thinks thoughts that are not his own. I can’t say any more.”
“Thoughts that are not his own. Like you’re thinking something and you don’t know how it got there? Or you say something and you don’t know why you said it?”
He turned slowly and looked at me, just like in the movies.
A long line of ash fell from my cigarette.
“It is the Thavelian.” Avi sighed. “Thavelian comes from the sea. He is the weed and the slime down below. All predatory fish are his special animals. Sirens fear him, all living creatures fear him, but for sailors, he presents the worst threat of all. For sailors, he creeps into their brains, seeps in like water. When they are too long at sea, they begin to grow mad and quarrelsome with isolation. Thavelian causes chaos, madness and mutiny. When he strikes, whole crews have murdered each other.”
Suddenly we were full of questions. How do you know when you’re around him? You know the demon is around when you lose dominion over your thoughts. How do you know when he’s got you? You lose control over your actions. Can you stop the process once it begins? It all depends. On what? Nobody knows.
“I do know one thing,” Avi said. “The crew always seems to know he is around before the officers.”
I said, “Avi, do you think he had anything to do with what happened last night?”
“Very possibly. Thavelian often pushes women to suicide. For some reason men do murder and women” – he drew a line across his throat.
As I pondered this, I realized I had spread all of my cards out in front of me and folded my hand. I don’t know why I did that. I had a straight flush.
Trang is missing.
I was tying off a Glad bag full of about seven dozen perfectly edible, barely eaten omelets when my supervisor came up to me and barked, “Where’s Trang?”
“I don’t know. Is this his shift?”
“You know it is.”
“I don’t keep track of my bunkmate’s schedule.”
My supervisor sniffed. “Tell him to report to me when you see him. Tell him he’s got demerits.”
“Why don’t you tell him? Isn’t that your job?”
“And that’s a demerit for you, too.”
He walked away, putting a sharp checkmark down on a clipboard.
We had four more days at sea. Every day, grey clouds would form and rain would burst from them. The cheap-asses complained about the weather and grumbled at mealtimes. I felt a weight on my chest as I mopped the deck. My eye twitched and I’d pray that I could outlast this thing and not run into the Starlight Lounge with a fork and stab someone in the eye. Inside my head it felt like there were ping-pong balls poinging off the hollow inside of my skull. They were me doing battle with Thavelian. If I just kept my thoughts racing and bouncing, maybe he couldn’t catch up with them long enough to enter in.
The last words I had said to Trang before he disappeared were, “Don’t let it take me over, man. Don’t let it get me.”
The engine room. Out of sheer curiosity, I took myself there. Joe was on watch. “You didn’t miss much of a card game,” I told him. The players were all pretty distracted.” He folded his newspaper. “It’s been mostly quiet here tonight. I almost feel like he is going in and out of the engine room. Most nights I can feel him right here.” He pointed to an electronic screen, the nerve center of the engine’s machinery. “And he moves. Tic, tic, tic, up through here.” Joe tapped on the hollow-sounding body of the motor, tapped as high as his arm could go. “And then I feel the thing – disperses.”
“Disperses.” Joe made a “poof” gesture with his fingers, like scattering dandelion fluff. When he says “disperses” it sounds like he’s saying “dispossess.”
He led me further along the side of the great engine. “Feel how hot the motor gets here. This is where we find him the other day with his hand pressed up hard.”
“But he isn’t here now you think?”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t feel anything. I don’t hear any tic-tic-tic.”
“Do you think he’s gone?” False hope, surely.
“Do you think he’s gone?” False hope, surely.
“I think he is out tonight,” said Joe. “I think he is wandering around the ship.”
Three more nights at sea. I was getting edgy. Everybody on this ship was starting to look sinister to me. It was the second day in a row with no sun, and the cheap-asses were getting angry. I saw them lying on the recliners, shifting and squirming, goosefleshed from the cold, backs of their legs cross-hatched with the recliner cushions interlacing plastic patterns. They drank more when it was cloudy, and they seemed to be growing restive. The sky today was a pale yellow-white, like seagull dung.
I didn’t know if I could outlast it.
I confessed to Avdi, “My thoughts are getting more violent. I can feel him trying to get inside me.”
“You have to fight it. Tell yourself it’s just a ringing in your ears. Or – I can put you in handcuffs if you want. If you don’t trust yourself.”
Trust myself. Did I?
I pondered this as I mopped up after the dinner shift. As long as I kept my thoughts flowing, Thavelian couldn’t enter in. I thought about Trang. Where the hell could he be, on a ship of this size? The god-damn place was finite. Unless he’d hurled himself into the sea.
“Penny for your thoughts.” Pat, dragging a sack of trash behind him.
“Please don’t say that.”
“Been visited by any sea-demons tonight?”
“Fuck off. I’m not in the mood.”
We were about twenty feet away from the holding room when its door burst open and there, of all people, was Trang. From the smell of him I could only conclude he’d been in there since I last saw him yesterday.
Dragging a huge bag of trash from behind him, he brushed past us and into the main atrium area on Dolphin Deck.
“Trang, where are you going?”
And then I saw the body. It was a man whose face I didn’t recognize, but I certainly knew who he was. I could tell by the burned hand. His throat had been slashed.
“Christ,” said Pat.
“We’ve got to get Trang.”
We hurtled down the hallway after him.
When we got out into the atrium we stopped dead.
“Jesus, Trang, what are you doing?!”
He had begun to spread garbage everywhere. In the middle of the blue and gold carpeting he dumped half-eaten dinners, napkins, Kleenexes, toilet paper, scraps of meat and old bones.
One of the passengers, a woman, noticed him. “Oh god,” she screamed in disgust, “What is he doing!?”
Pat and I looked at each other and grabbed Trang’s arms.
“Have you lost your shit?” Pat asked.
We snuck him back through the service routes, through all the back corridors the passengers never see, using the freight elevator that always smelled like rotting refuse. We hauled him through crew quarters like a sack of spuds and didn’t stop ‘til we were in our cabin with the door locked.
Trang still seemed unresponsive, as though in a trance.
“Do you think he did it?” whispered Pat.
“Get him out of those clothes,” I snapped back, partly because of the smell, partly because I wanted to see if there was any blood on them. There wasn’t.
“Pat, there’s no blood. Trang might have lost his shit but he didn’t kill that guy.”
My second thought was that we should get Trang into the shower, try to clean him off a little but instead of saying that, when I opened my mouth all that came out was, “Pat, open the door. Now.”
He looked a little puzzled but he did it. Caught in the back of my throat was the warning I knew I couldn’t utter – No, Pat don’t listen to me! – but of course I didn’t say it.
He opened it.
And Chuck Lee got him with the knife.
I gaped as the blood in Pat’s jugular made a run for its life. Staring into the eyes of the murderer, I knew there would be no time for screaming.
I wanted to run, just me alone, but whatever hold on me the demon possessed had passed, and I was lucid enough to feel guilt. I’m glad I did, because without it I can’t honestly say whether or not I would have grabbed Trang the way I did and threw him over my shoulder as I ran past Chuck. I want to think I would have anyway, but I don’t want to spend too long thinking about it.
As I careened through the halls, a half-naked Vietnamese dude slung over my shoulder, I tried to control my own mind. “You are not inside me, demon,” I said to myself over and over. “You are not inside me.” I tried to picture my thoughts staying one step ahead of him, like I did before. I tried not to think about Pat. “Come on Trang,” I breathed stertorously, “We can do this.”
I was headed straight for the engine room.
It started getting hard to run. I noticed the ship was listing more heavily than usual. It was rocking back and forth as though a storm were coming. I wished I had a walkie and I could call for help. I prayed Joe would be in the engine room. Once I got there we could radio the captain and start heading immediately for shore.
He wasn’t. It was completely empty. The door swung open, and the monitor was smashed in a spider-web of broken glass right down the center. I squinted at the monitor, trying to make out the data. In the upper right-hand corner was a weather icon, a sun partially blocked by clouds. Humidity point, temperature, wind-speed. Only 26 knots. Impossible that there was a storm. Why was the ship rocking back and forth like that? I’d never felt anything like it, except in thunderstorms and high winds. I looked back at the monitor. There were three circular icons in the middle, like gas gauges in a car, and all their arrows pointed to empty. He’d shut the engine off.
I picked up the radio and called the captain’s control tower. “Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo! This is engine room one. Engine is down, requesting help, over!”
Emptiness. An outer-space crackle. All was silent on the radio.
“Shit. Trang, wait here. Trang?”
That son of a bitch was gone. After I’d carried him, quasi-catatonic, all the way here, now he was gone.
I ran out of the engine room and back to the freight elevator. I could see from the buttons lighting up that Trang had gotten off on Starfish Deck. I lurched my way down there on the emergency stairwell, nearly falling two or three times. I’d never felt a boat move like this, ever.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.
Trang, sweet, friendly Trang, always ready to help, was standing by the lifeboats. By the lifeboats whose cords he had cut and whose hulls he had tossed over the railings and out onto the water. Every single lifeboat, gone, and a sea of orange life jackets bobbing on the waves.
Trang smiled at me.
KILL HIM NOW. Shut up! I can’t hear you! I jammed both fingers into my ears, hard. All I could hear was ringing.
I shook my head. Trang, you fuck-up. The demon seemed to have turned him into a poltergeist of sorts. Chuck was a serial killer, Tang was a poltergeist, so what did that make me?
I hoped there were still life boats on the port side. Passengers were starting to come out onto the decks, looking for guidance. Shit! Who told them to do that? Had Avi made an announcement? Where was he?
Even with my ears ringing, I could hear the shrieks. People were becoming hysterical. They parted like the Nile and then I saw what they were screaming about: Chuck, walking slowly toward me, carried Avi’s dripping head in his hands.
So that’s what the demon decided to do to me. I was to be the bad-luck charm. The curse. The one who brought death to all his friends. I began to weep, I’m not ashamed to say it, and grabbed Trang close to me. Fucked if I was going to let it happen again. Avi’s eyes stared at me, they stared. Fuck you, Chuck Lee, you are not getting Trang. You will have to kill me first.
Then the boat gave such a lurch and heave it felt, for all the world, like the White Whale below us, nudging and tumbling us all around. Not a breath of wind, not a drop of rain in the sky, and here we were roiling like a tugboat on a boiling sea. I remembered Avi’s words: “It can take over anything it wants.” The ship’s motions threw me so that I tumbled head over heels, landing flat on my back on the deck. I still had one hand grasped around Trang’s wrist. Where was Chuck? I had lost him in the chaos of the crowd.
What happened next isn’t 100% clear. I couldn’t hear so well, so I wasn’t sure what stopped the screaming and the roaring of the crowd. But the seemed to be one last surge of symphonic screaming, in stereo, and then silence. Silence, and a ringing sound. It was the sound of a bell. Phoc and Joe were standing on Stingray deck, looking down over us. Joe’s hand held a gun. I followed his sightline and saw Chuck facefirst on deck. Blood pooled out of his back, under his belly. Phoc was ringing the captain’s bell, and both were reciting. I couldn’t make out the words, just the ringing of the bell echoing over and over again in my ears.
Later I found out it was a Buddhist chant designed for driving away evil spirits. I don’t know how or why it worked. What made the demon leave them be? How did they stop it when it had gotten so strong? I can’t tell you that. I have seen everything, but I do not know everything.
It was early morning when the Polestar came out to rescue us. Her shocked crew helped clean up Chuck’s rampage as best they could.
My hearing never recovered. Seems I really stuck my fingers in my ears harder than you’re ever supposed to, and I’ve got some permanent scarring. I wear two hearing aids now, at all times. I got off easy, though. Trang was never really the same. He went home to live with his mother and never sailed again.
Phoc and Joe still keep in touch, with little postcards now and then. They are still sailing all around the world, safe in the assurance that they can best any demon of the deep. But they both work commercial fishing ships now, Icelandic and Japanese, I think, and stay away from the cruise circuit. I hear Joe was promoted to head engineer but Phoc still works with the kitchen crew. He’s happy at it though. “All my soul needs is a really good bowl of fish stew,” he told me once. I would like to be as happy as those two one day.
And me, I obviously still live in Brooklyn. I live on the highest point of land on all Long Island, and like I say, maybe I should move some place where I can’t see the ships in the harbor. But I like being up high. If there’s ever a flood, I’ll be far away from the water.