The tide was out, the sea the merest sheen on the mud. Tiny pale sea-lice crawled over strewn and stranded things: collapsed and sclerosing hydromedusae, mantled opaque with decay; dull sea-glass and variegate, tattered plastic; flecks of nacre, of chitin; dead mussels and hake and shreds of dulse. Rot’s force had swollen shells apart, avulsed the inner flesh.
Nothing to glean that was not tainted. Odtsetseg looked up; out where shoals gave way to channel, the Cosco Imperator was underway. At that distance, propulsion and displacement were alike obscured; Odtsetseg watched the tanker slide, wakelessly, atop an ocean as continent as earth itself. A flight of cormorants headed as if for the morning sun, then banked and dropped to skim a nearer target, a yellow raft lolloping on waves that shoaled and rose and foamed and collapsed the faster, the closer they came to shore. A man was seated at the back of the raft, an oar held upright in one hand. His other hand rested on the head of a small, scowling personage.
The wind had shifted. From the far-off mainland now: ash, defoliant. Odtsetseg watched the raft lollop on until it was within hailing distance.
The personage called out, in a voice louder than necessary, as if through a maelstrom, “Is this ——— Island, or are you some maritime illusion?”
They trudged over tide-sheen all the way to Odtsetseg at the wrack line, the smaller perched in the crook of the taller’s elbow and the raft dragged behind.
Odtsetseg said he had never seen anyone arrive on this island of their own accord. The only rafts here were handmade ones, confiscated before ever put to sea, or breaking into sodden flotsam under flailing, drowning prisoners.
The smaller one clambered down. Her scalp showed dull white under closely shorn hair. The taller sat down facing the sea. He opened a valve on the side of the raft; he put his lips to the valve and began sucking out great draughts of air.
Odtsetseg asked whether the two of them had come looking for the entrance to hell.
The man put the raft aside and spoke in a way Odtsetseg did not recognize, in a halting, humming groan and burr. At length he ceased; he applied himself to the valve once more.
The little personage said, “My friend here says you look like a man in whom we can have confidence. The fact that you have the bearing and dress of a trustee is the least of it. You once led a life of violence and pleasure; now you are restrained, within and without. We applaud what we take to be your strategies: caution, absorption, a throttled-back curiosity. Pragmatic means of survival for the detainee from whom too little is expected rather than too much.
“We are Rudd and Weser; he is Rudd and I am Weser. Five months ago we stowed away aboard the Cosco Imperator. We had no desire to reach the ship’s destination — every ship is destined to sink or be scuttled; the final port is always ruin. Nor were we interested in any of the ship’s intermediary ports, not Qeshm or Rugen or the Saint Brandon Rocks. We chose the Imperator because it passes within a night’s rowing of this prison island.
“The sea keeps plunderers out as much as it keeps the likes of you in. For you, this island is durance vile. It goes hard with you here; hard, the privations and the discipline; hard, the tedium and the sorrows; even your trustee status is but a lax noose. But for plunderers! For them, a prison island represents wealth itself, in sleeping form. In the form of slumber.
“We are not plunderers.” She swayed as she spoke: a stubby sylph. “We offer you friendship; we ask your trust. Be assured all three of us will profit by our association.”
How, Odtsetseg asked.
Rudd paused in his exsufflations. Ash was falling in pale flakes like shirred paper, vanishing on contact with seawater, settling in the baffle-seams of the raft draped on Rudd’s knees. Rudd spoke again, this time in hissed sibilants pocked with chirping.
Weser translated: “I feared for our safety on board the Imperator — I say ‘I’ meaning he, Rudd — and so I counseled Weser to travel in the guise of a man, in case we should be discovered. Weser said she knew better methods for remaining unnoticed. Days, we secreted ourselves in disused storeholds. Nights, I bound Weser to my belly; I pulled on a bulky nautical sweater and thus we walked abroad, one unmolested corporate being. We waddled topside, stargazing, smoking, my hand tucked in my waistband in support of our great paunch. I spoke softly to Weser of all she could not see: the wrinkled black sea far below, and, up above us, the ship’s bridge, massive against the night sky and lit by rows of tiny lights that made of every column a spire, of every porthole an architrave, and the whole one fairy kingdom, and all for us alone.
“We were free. Suspended between two trackless wastes — the sea, the sky — seen but unnoticed, fed without having to work, we wondered why we should ever go ashore again.
“A shadow of distrust passed through you just now, don’t deny it — I say ‘just now’ meaning back then, when you asked your question. You are restless. So were we, in our doldrum world, though we did not know it yet. Contentment ripened, rotted. Underneath her bindings, Weser turned like a worm.
“We took to wandering below decks. Outside, perhaps, were whitecaps, booming swells, the pitch and roll, the brilliant sun. We knew nothing of all that. We followed narrow corridors lit by yellow bulbs in wire cages. I climbed down rungs bolted to walls, Weser on my shoulders, her fingers clutching my hair. We descended. Conduits on corridor ceilings sweated. A rusty grime prevailed. The air scarce rewarded breathing: a hot, dense fug of oil fumes and bilge reek. This far down, the sound of the ship was a thrumming amalgam so loud it subtracted the auditory from the world of the senses, from the world itself.
“In that loudness, Weser and I sometimes came upon a sailor. Like you, detainee, sailors often have reason to want to look insouciant, however startled they may be. Those we saw below, so far from light and air and day, may themselves have been hiding. We affected indifference at first; we let them go.
“In time, we brought certain of these sailors into our confidence, one by one. We would motion to a sailor to climb back up with us to the higher, quieter decks; we would show him our hiding places, our complex mode of speech, how Weser’s tiny person could be concealed under bandages. What lightsome hours we spent with our new shipboard friends, with the stoker Holf, with an oiler named Struc or Truc and his brother. We told each one he looked like just the man in whom we could have confidence, though this was perhaps least true of Holf. They brought along still others, in whom we also professed to trust. When the number of our sailor-confidants had grown sufficient, we gathered them nightly in one of the empty storeholds we favored. A row of rust-seeping, painted-over rivets ran the length of its floor. On our side of the rivet-line, I held Weser before me; I interlaced my fingers and she stood on my palms. Who keeps you down? we would ask the sailors. Who robs you? If we catechized, it was not in order to instruct, or not really. We did it for the savor of that astringent pleasure bachelors can take together in anatomizing the world and its corruptions. Who holds you down, who robs you? Weser and I would ask the sailors. The swindlers, they would answer us, the swindlers and the oligarchs in their distant capitals. We asked them what was more common, these days, than to foment crisis and ride it out toward profit.
“The sailors liked to bring Weser gifts: balisong butterfly knives, festoons of dates strung on bootlaces. Do not mistake these men for simpletons, I told Weser when we were alone one evening. —You’ve promised them they will reign in permanent riotocracy, Weser answered me.
“It was dusk, the first dog watch. Many of our confidants were on low-visibility detail just then. I imagined it a fraught and exhausting travail — peering into the chill penumbral fog, trying and failing and trying and failing to descry figure’s emergence from ground. But there had to have been exceptions, pleasurable ones, structurally impossible for Weser or myself to have experienced and therefore enviable: coming along a gangway the sailor notices a darkening concretion in the fog just ahead, which, as it nears and swells, takes on definition, reveals itself; not only is it a fellow sailor but a fellow conspirator, a confidant. The beautiful is just this: that which appears. Weser and I were denied this, denied, too, that serene pagan confraternity of sailors, however close we came, so that I preferred it when they were out in the fog somewhere, in that life unknown to me; I wished they would not return to the storehold bringing their absence, their distance, with them, a wish tinged by something of the same feeling that brushes up against me when I consider that I will never really know what Weser is saying to you now, ‘now’ meaning some future moment, imperceptible to me, after I have spoken and she is making sounds I can only assume render these meanings.
“Late one evening, there were just three sailors in attendance with us, bearing jars of turnip wine they had brewed underneath their hammocks. We told them we would return shortly, with black bread and perhaps a cucumber. We locked the storehold behind us.
“Life at sea is life; the same night of confusion obtains there as elsewhere. Hour on hour you watch the ship’s wake churn and spume, wave on wave regressing, recurring, ever on the verge of revealing to you — to you only, just there where you stand — the secret of matter’s perpetual collision with itself. This presentiment of the infinite is an error. Men bring the world with them when they go to sea.
“We put it about, amongst our remaining confidants, that the intriguers had shown themselves heartily sorry in the moments just before we closed the door on them forever. We lingered over the story of their repentance: how plaintive; how affecting; how not unmixed with surprise (intriguers never expect to get caught); how orthogonal to the matter of their condign punishment.”
An ash-dusted crab finicked its way over sand and wrack. Fat stalks of saltwort trembled in the breeze. Whelks clung to rocks. Slack tide. Rudd folded the raft in thirds, lengthwise, and began rolling it up from one end.
What does your talk avail me, Odtsetseg asked. I found nothing to eat here and if I do not get back soon there will be nothing for me to eat there either.
Weser said, “I believe I speak for Rudd when I say we are ready to come with you, or nearly. You may introduce us, surreptitiously, to new confidants your discernment tells you are the right ones; our improbable arrival is already their guarantee of our worth. First, understand this: we would have spared those sailors if we could. In our first weeks aboard the Imperator, the two of us had lived as one being, I inside Rudd, installed there the way a man in despair keeps the matter of his self behind a false door. What a queasy delight was our life.
“After the dispatching or anyway the immurement of the so-called intriguers, after we had told the story of their heartfelt remorse and our tender but pitiless justice, a story that bound our confidants to us more closely than even the catechism and the tributes, just then we were poised to go from triumph to triumph, not by restricting the number of those who knew our secret but by expanding it. We made ready for our imminent success. For three nights running, after the immurement, we gathered our remaining sailors, to prepare them. We asked them who the exploiters were. Our sailors answered us as prettily as ever.
“Here let me pause, detainee; pause at once. There is enough said. Find out from Rudd — if you can, without my aid — of the return of our accusers from their oubliette, haggard and wild-eyed, raving yet still possessed of enough sense to bring about our total ruin. It is for Rudd to tell you, in his monstrous language, if it can be called a language, of exposure, arrest, confinement to the brig. Least of all is there any need to speak of prisoners’ ecstasies, erasure of self, the dissolution of time in eternity; what knowledge, these days, is less secret? What more decayed, more contemptible, than the penitentiary’s gimcrack transcendence?
“Let Rudd tell you, if he cares to, whether in the succeeding months of captivity he despaired of ever reaching this island; I tell you I did not.
“Here we are now, ashore, as you see us now. Are we ourselves not a form of proof? Let it be yours to imagine the joy born fresh out of terror, the rapture of escape from durance, the wondrous reprieve from dread. Have confidence in us.”