Jun 17, 2023


A Story of Transfiguration

By Marty Malin

Copyright © 2023 Harold Martin Malin. All rights reserved.

About the Novel

Dr. Jessamyn Quilter, a middle-aged emergency department physician is trapped in an abusive marriage to a washed-up mathematics professor whose greatest joy is tormenting his students. When his bullying leads one of them to commit suicide, she decides her husband no longer deserves to live and engineers the perfect murder. She abandons her comfortable New England life for a new beginning as a passenger aboard the container ship MV Andaman Pearl, a slow-moving freighter hauling cargo from Yokohama to Rotterdam. It’s is the perfect venue for that romance novel she thinks she wants to write. Or so she believes.

So how does she end up in an indigenous village in the Amazon rainforest instead? You might get away with murder in Massachusetts, but you can't get away with unbalancing the cosmos. Either Anaconda Woman will destroy you, taking the evil inside herself, as she has since the beginning of time, or you can choose to die at the hand of Grandmother Aya.  Dreamcats, teacher trees, and shamans—even Tamil Tiger and al-Shabaab terrorists—propel Jessamyn’s transit toward redemption and transfiguration, restoring cosmic balance in the process.

“At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

GEORGE ORWELL, The Prevention of Literature

[Installment 1]

Part I MV Andaman Pearl

Chapter One Premeditation

WESTBURY, Mass., February 13

Once I decided to kill my husband, it was just a matter of the details. I’m very good at details. As a physician, it’s important to get the details right. And I do. I always do.

He’s not the poster boy for abusive husbands. Not the creep who traffics in black eyes and broken bones, whose handiwork I encounter all too frequently in the emergency department.

He’s a different sort of creep. A remorseless spirit-killer who bedevils the vulnerable and lays waste to their souls.

He’s no more abusive to me than anyone else he meets, but his other prey can avoid him. His students move on or quit. His colleagues don’t associate with him except under duress.

The owner of the Chinese restaurant we patronize thinks he’s a laughable prick. She smiles and pretends not to understand him when he bitches at her, then flips him off behind his back. Even the cat hides when he hears his car pull into the driveway, lest he risk being booted out of the way.

Now we can add DeShawn Livingston to his roster of soul murders. DeShawn was one of my husband's mentees, a gifted math/philosophy double major and athlete at Upper Valley University where my husband is an associate professor who will never make full. DeShawn was a polite, animated young man. I liked him very much on the occasions when he came to our home for a weekend dinner or to discuss his research with my husband.

The university was advancing his candidacy as a Rhodes scholar until he made the mistake of coming out to my homophobic husband. He did a number on DeShawn, and the university dropped him from consideration a couple of weeks ago.

“Nasty little faggot,” he fumed. “The last thing Oxford needs is another queer. I suggested he do the world a favor and kill himself.”

So, he did. Last Saturday DeShawn got drunk and went to sleep on the railroad tracks north of town. I couldn’t bear to have his remains brought to the morgue in my hospital and asked the sheriff to divert to Holy Cross a few miles away.

“Good,” my husband muttered when he heard about the suicide.

I was furious and I told him so. He laughed and said he expected as much from an ugly bull dyke like me. Not the first time he’s called me that since the early days of our marriage when I disclosed a brief fling with a female college classmate before I married him.

No matter. He can yell at me all he wants, make ignorant remarks about my body, and berate me. It’s water under the bridge.

[Installment 2]

Chapter One Premeditation (continued)

I’ve gotten used to living with this man. I try to get along, appease him. But my husband’s unvarnished joy at the annihilation of DeShawn Livingston is a bridge too far. I can’t allow him to continue destroying other people’s lives or my own.

I’ve had it with him. I’m fed up with his bigotry, his churlish behavior, and his lack of compassion. Tired of his abuse, entitled arrogance, and contempt for anyone he considers a lesser being, which is everyone he encounters.

It’s a little thing compared with DeShawn’s death, but I’m also tired of our bedtime routine, worn thin after thirty years of marriage, being treated to the same performance by him each evening in our en suite bathroom. Pee splashing into the water. A few squeaky farts surreptitiously loosed into the bowl while he clears his throat to cover the noise. The hiss of air freshener.

Paper unrolls. The toilet flushes. Always twice. He stands and pulls up his boxers, snapping the elastic into place. I’ve asked that he put them in the hamper while he’s in the bathroom, but I might as well be talking to the cat.

I hear him gargle and spit. What I don’t hear is evidence he’s washing his hands. How can anyone past the age of five not wash his hands after using the toilet?

He trundles out of the bathroom as I lie in bed, breath smelling like a chemistry lab, and drops his underpants to the floor where they will remain for the night. Some mornings he might pick them up on his way back into the bathroom, but most times he’ll nudge them under the bed with his foot as if they have nothing to do with him.

I look up from my romance novel as he stands beside our bed and paste on as welcoming a face as I can manage, as I’ve done for decades of bedtimes. He doesn’t acknowledge me or say a word, which is what I expect. Perhaps he’s still obsessing about the Novikov conjecture. He’s told me he does some of his best thinking in the bathroom.

The Novikov conjecture, he lectures me repeatedly, is one of the more important unsolved problems in high-dimensional manifold topology, which I don't begin to understand and couldn't care about less. He’s certain he’ll solve it, but he won’t. Mathematics is a young person’s game, and he’s well past fifty. He’s been out of the running for a Fields Medal, the “Nobel Prize” in math, for a couple of decades.

Not that he ever had a shot. So he plods along, your worst nightmare of a math professor, an uninspired hack who alternately terrorizes his students or puts them to sleep with pedantic non sequiturs, following the Novikov conjecture down countless rabbit holes.

I turn back the sheet, patting the bed, inviting him in. He unsticks his penis from his scrotum and tugs it once or twice, looking down as if to reassure himself it’s his and is properly attached. It’s an almost universal tic among men I’ve seen countless times when they undress in my clinic, but his attempt to rearrange his dysfunctional genitals annoys me.

He reaches behind his back with both hands and scratches his butt, yawns epically, and slides in beside me.

He doesn’t read or attempt conversation. Without so much as a perfunctory “good night,” he’ll put on his CPAP mask and turn off his lamp, a signal I should stop whatever I’m doing and switch mine off as well.

It would be impossible for him to be less attractive at bedtime if he tried.

Unless he wants sex.

[Installment 3]

Chapter One Premeditation (continued)

Sex makes bedtime more complex. That requires him to inject “stiffy juice,” as he calls it, into his penis. The little blue pills no longer work. Neither does “Dr. Seltzer’s Hard-On Helper,” although his herbalist swears by it.

Sex means preparation, if not foreplay. He must add some sterile water to a vial containing CAVERJECT powder and shoot up. Sounds awful, but it hurts less than a flu shot. If it were painful, he’d run the other way because like most bullies, he’s a candy-ass.

He’ll get a serviceable erection within a few minutes, lasting the better part of an hour—six times longer than he needs to wrap things up on his end.

I’ll bookmark my novel when I hear him announce, “Houston, we have liftoff.” Really. He’s said that on sex night for at least ten years.

He’ll swagger out of the bathroom to my side of the bed, fondling himself, and declare he is “horny,” leering like a demented baboon. I’ll get a scant three minutes of his version of foreplay, running his unwashed hands over my body and pinching my nipples before he declares his need for my “hot pussy.”

Then he’ll crawl on top of me, latch onto a breast, and reach down to fiddle with my vulva. He’ll crow about how “fucking wet” he has made me, call me a “cunt,” and implore me to beg for his “hot cock,” which I will do to honor my part of the bargain, the pretense that our coupling is erotic, and to move things along.

The ritual seldom varies. When I complained to my shit-for-brains analyst that sex with my husband was terrible, he told me I should be more assertive, ask for what I want. So I asked my husband to kiss me.

He scowled as if I were some irksome insect and told me kissing didn’t turn him on. That was the end of it.

Foreplay over, he’ll enter and grind away until he finishes, then roll over onto his side of the bed, grunt his satiation, and fall asleep almost before he can strap himself into his CPAP.

Sex with him is as formulaic as a quadratic equation, though a quadratic equation has two roots and he only solves for his. Not that I mind all that much. Orgasms are easy for me, and I have other ways to get them when I wish. At least my shit-for-brains analyst helped me with that.

[Installment 4]

Chapter One Premeditation (continued)

Early in our marriage, my husband and I agreed we would do this little dance once a week. He prefers Wednesdays. Today is Tuesday so there’s nothing to delay our sleep tonight.

They say it’s the little things that finally push us over the edge. Surely I could continue to endure his unappetizing bedtime proclivities. They’re little more than annoyances. But DeShawn Livingston’s suicide is not a little thing. My husband destroyed that young man, and I won’t let him get away with it.

I’ve considered divorcing him, but divorce can be a messy, drawn-out public process, and it wouldn’t protect anyone else from him. He would remain free to wreak havoc on others as long as he lives. Divorce would bring no vengeance for DeShawn. No retribution for the abuse he’s heaped upon me.

I don’t think of his death as a big deal. It’s the right solution to my problem. As a physician my job is to save lives, but I rub shoulders with death every day.

Of course I could wait it out. I will almost certainly outlive him since I’m in far better health than he is. But if I can shuffle him along toward his ultimate reward, what’s the point of hanging around waiting for nature to take its course?

I won’t take pleasure in killing him. I doubt I’ll feel much of anything except relief once he’s out of my life. Overseeing his demise is a mildly distasteful chore I can no longer put off, like cleaning the litter box.

The consequences of his death will all be positive. We’re well off. Both of us brought money into the marriage, and our investments are substantial. He has a few patents to his credit that produce a steady trickle of royalties, dependable as those rusty old West Texas pumpjacks.  

We have no debts, not even a mortgage, and I make good money as head of the emergency department in nearby Chilton. His salary at the university is larger than he deserves, and our pensions will be generous. There’s a couple million dollars in life insurance on him, plus sizable amounts stashed away in retirement accounts.

When he dies, I’ll have all that money sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t get it if I just divorced him. While I wouldn't do him in simply for the money, I’ll happily take the free cherry that comes with the sundae.

So tomorrow at bedtime, on sex night, I’ll kill him.

[Installment 5]

Chapter One Premeditation (continued)

I know exactly how to do it and get away with it. When I come home from work tomorrow, I’ll replace the vial of sterile water he uses to prepare his CAVERJECT with a vial of a clear, liquid drug we use to paralyze muscles during surgery.

It will be a simple matter. His CAVERJECT doses are samples, courtesy of the drug rep who haunts the corridors of our hospital. She also reps the drug I’m going to substitute for his sterile water.

Because they’re samples, I don’t have to involve the hospital pharmacy or pay much attention to documenting where the drugs end up. In the privacy of my office, it won’t be difficult to replace the sterile water in the CAVERJECT package with the other drug. They look the same. No one will be the wiser.

Houston will not announce liftoff tomorrow night because the drug will rush into his bloodstream, paralyzing him within seconds. Since his muscles won’t work, he won’t stagger out of the bathroom. He’ll just drop in his tracks. He won’t be able to breathe, so it will be impossible to call out. After a minute of not breathing, he will lose consciousness. He'll be brain dead shortly after.

He’s in for an unpleasant few minutes, and I regret that, but it won't be any worse than the inevitable heart attack he would eventually have had.

The last I’ll hear from him will be a thud as he hits the floor. He’ll be dead by the time I put down my book and go check on him. I’ll give him five or ten more minutes. No reason to rush.

[Installment 6]

Chapter One Premeditation (continued)

Of course I’ll make certain he’s no longer alive before I do anything else. I’ll check but find no heartbeat. No respiration. His pupils will be fixed and dilated.

Once I confirm he’s dead, I’ll tidy up. Take all the time I need to attend to details so as not to make mistakes.

Using gloves from my medical bag, I’ll wipe down the floor and the vanity with toilet paper and flush it. I’ll collect the contaminated vials, the syringe, the alcohol wipes, and the packaging he’s discarded. Everything that might have traces of the paralyzing drug, along with the gloves, will go into the small red sharps container in my medical bag to drop into the biohazard waste bin at the hospital, destined for incineration.

I’ll put on another pair of gloves and prepare a second batch of CAVERJECT in the ordinary way, with sterile water, making sure he “touches” those vials and the syringe with his dead fingers so his prints are on them.

I’ll squirt a drop or two of ordinary CAVERJECT on him where the needle stick will be visible and discard the rest of the dose into his sink. Then I’ll arrange all the props. The nearly empty vials, wipes, and packaging will go on the vanity where he would have left them for me to clean up. The syringe will go on the floor where he would have dropped it before he collapsed.

I’ll look over everything for a second and third time. No hurry. His body temperature won’t drop more than a degree the first hour in our well-heated bathroom, and rigor mortis won’t set in for a couple more.

All that bait and switch is overkill if you’ll pardon the expression. Nobody will ever check. He’s already had one heart attack and is on a bunch of cardiac and blood pressure meds. No wonder he can’t get it up. He has a family history of heart disease. His father died of a heart attack when he was fifty. What else could it be except his heart?

Even if someone were to suspect foul play, an autopsy would reveal no trace of the drug I’ve chosen. That’s the great thing about it. It metabolizes rapidly into molecules naturally found in the body, leaving nothing to tip off your average medical examiner. Of course, the FBI with their expensive voodoo might find something if they were to go looking, but there will be no reason to alert the Feds for an ordinary, garden variety heart attack in a man who’s a textbook collection of risk factors.

The stage set, all the props in place, it will be curtain-up for Act II. Kneeling over him, my phone on the floor in front of me, I’ll call 911 on speaker. They’ll overhear my fruitless attempts to resuscitate him and my pleas for help. It’ll all be a sham since he’ll be irretrievably dead, but they won’t know. When they arrive, the paramedics will find me in my nightgown, kneeling on the bathroom floor, working feverishly over my husband’s corpse.

When they can’t bring him back to life, they’ll bundle him off to the hospital morgue. I’ll throw on a robe and ride along in the ambulance, pretending to be devastated, too much in shock to cry or talk to anyone.

After a few days playing the grieving widow and holding court for well-wishers, I’ll meet with our attorney, Jerry Finsterwald, who’ll wrap up the last details, notifying everyone who needs to know, including the Neptune Society. I’ll raise a glass to the memory of DeShawn Livingston and all the people my husband will never harm again.

He will be dead, disposed of, and soon forgotten. I’ll have a crack at a new life, and nobody will ever suspect I killed him.

[Installment 7]

Chapter Two Murder

WESTBURY, Mass., February 14

When I woke up, the butterflies in my stomach were warming up for an airshow. Thank god for the calming routine of the emergency department. An ED may look chaotic, but the chaos is carefully choreographed.

Most of us who work in emergency departments aren’t adrenaline junkies. Who needs an excitable doc with shaky hands working on them? Steady, efficient, no drama gets the job done without killing more patients than necessary.

Overall, today is just another day at the peanut stand with the usual broken bones, asthma attacks, and automobile accidents. The only thing even slightly out of the ordinary, other than the colorful paper hearts hanging from the lights over the nursing station, is a patient from the jail who tried to kill herself. We patch her up, under the watchful eye of a deputy sheriff, and wait for a bed on the psych ward.

Later in the afternoon, half an hour before my shift ends, an ambulance rolls up with a cardiac arrest from the Leisure Ridge nursing home, dead on arrival, wheeled straight into the cold room. I sign the paperwork. No need to take him off the gurney in my shop. No doubt he’ll still be there when my husband rolls up in the same condition later tonight. The funeral home won’t come until tomorrow morning, so they’ll get a two-fer. No sense wasting a trip.

There’s ample time over lunch to substitute the paralyzing drug for the sterile water and pop it into my medical bag along with the CAVERJECT sample. It’ll please my husband to learn that sex night can proceed as scheduled.

When it’s time to leave the hospital at the end of my shift, the butterflies are back, doing loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. Half a Valium and a few deep breaths in the parking structure help calm me for the easy half-hour drive home. The gentle curves of the tree-lined parkway seem engineered for relaxing driving.

As usual I get home before my husband and nose the Mercedes into the garage, retrieving my backpack and medical bag from the trunk. The cat comes to great me as I open the door. I reach down and scratch his ears. He rolls over, presenting his fat belly, begging for more, but I disappoint him. Maybe later.

The mail is on the floor in the foyer where it has fallen through the slot in the door. I put it on the console table by the staircase, climb the stairs, and drop my things on the desk in my small study across from our bedroom. The CAVERJECT and the poisonous drug from my medical bag go into my husband’s medicine cabinet.

I strip off my scrubs and step into the shower. The soothing water cascades down my body, splashing musically into the shower pan, making pleasant gurgling noises in the drain.

The memory of this morning’s conversation with my husband intrudes into my solitude.

“It’s Wednesday,” he groused. “I’m all out of my stiffy juice.”

“I’ll bring some home tonight,” I said.

He’s “all out” because I disposed of his remaining supply yesterday so as not to risk a mix-up with the poisoned CAVERJECT he will use tonight. If he noticed his missing stash, he said nothing. Apparently he only checks on Wednesday mornings.

If he asks tonight why I’ve brought home only a single dose, I’ll tell him that’s all the drug rep had, and she’ll bring more tomorrow. Of course, he won’t have a tomorrow.

I’m getting out of the shower when I hear him downstairs.

“Jessamyn?” he hollers.

“Up here. Be down in a minute.” As usual there’s no response. He skulks into his downstairs study, and I hear him close the door.

I towel off and pull on some underwear, a pair of jeans, and a casual top. We have nothing special planned for the evening unless you count sex. If he bought me flowers or chocolates, even a Valentine’s Day card, much less arranged to take me out to dinner this evening, it would be the first time in decades. I’m certain we’ll be eating at home.

We'll get takeout from the Lotus Garden to eat in front of the TV. I won’t ask what his fortune cookie says. Pretty sure I know what his future holds.

[Installment 8]

Chapter Two Murder (continued)

I give the bathroom the once over, make my way downstairs, and rap on his study door.

“On the phone,” he grouches.

I open the door a crack.

“No, Friday will not be okay,” he says with the disdain he reserves for bullying students. “The work’s due in class tomorrow.” He enjoys I am overhearing his conversation. It adds to his sadistic pleasure.

“Well, yes, that’s unfortunate. I understand that you have been ill, and the timing is inconvenient. Nevertheless, it’s due tomorrow. Friday will not do.” A brief pause. “Still no. Tomorrow or don’t bother.”

Brutal. Can that be the beginning of a smile on his face?

He hangs up. “Fucking entitled, brain-dead students,” he says, opening the door fully. His demeanor is smug, pleased with himself for smashing an annoying, but harmless, pest.

“How was your day?” I ask with perhaps too much enthusiasm.

“Same shit, different toilet,” he says, fussing with the papers on his desk. “Same imbecile students, same lame-ass excuses. How was yours?”

We are nothing if not polite to each other.

“Good. Chinese for dinner?”


“Pick up some eggplant with tofu for me and maybe some hot and sour soup,” I say.


“Of course, rice, silly.”

“Call it in. I’ll go get it,” he grunts, picking up his keys.

“Do you want broccoli beef?” I call after him, speed dialing the Lotus Garden. He grunts his assent. He never orders anything else.

We watch CNN as we eat. He’s arguing with the television as he bolts his food. The anchor, he avers, should hang for the crime of being a moron. He switches channels to a BBC rerun of David Attenborough discoursing about coconut crabs.

He gets down to business, grading papers, decrying the caliber of his students. Neither of us is paying much attention to Attenborough or each other as we finish dinner. A typical Wednesday evening.

“I’m going to go up and read in bed for a bit,” I announce when I finish cleaning up the kitchen. “Take your time.” 

He looks up from his papers, giving me that “You-know-what-night-tonight-is” leer, and I smile, pretending to be amused.

Upstairs, I wash my face, brush my teeth, and prop myself up in bed. I grab my current romance novel, Till Death Do Us Part, from the drawer in my nightstand. What is it about romance novels? Clandestine attractions, fever dreams, betrayal, love conquering all, torrid yet not terribly explicit sex?

Yes, all that and more. How many thousands of these trashy novels are out there? I’ve read hundreds and plan to read hundreds more. Perhaps one day I’ll write one. Who knows?

An hour later, the TV falls silent, and my husband comes lumbering up the stairs. He arrives in our bedroom and goes into the bathroom to prepare. Same routine as every other Wednesday night, including the part where he opens his medicine cabinet to retrieve the CAVERJECT. I hear him tear open the packaging and clear his throat. I catch a whiff of isopropyl alcohol from the wipes.

Then my life changes forever.

[Installment 9]

Chapter Two Murder (continued)

I hear the expected thud as his rag-doll body meets the unyielding bathroom floor. Then silence.

My heart is pounding, my breathing shallow. After a minute or two, I call out. “Everything okay?” Of course, it’s not. I don’t expect a reply, and none comes. I spend a couple more minutes calming down, bookmark my place, and get out of bed to check on him. Ten minutes are up.

Everything is as expected. He is unequivocally dead. Face up, naked, with the instrument of his demise on the floor beside him. My composure returns as if I were managing an accident in the ED. I step around his body and go about my plan, setting the stage for the first responders.

When everything is ready, I kneel beside his corpse. Switching my phone to speaker, I place it on the floor beside me and call for help.

“911. What is your emergency?”

“My husband’s not breathing! I think he had a heart attack. I’m doing CPR.”

“Just keep doing that, ma’am. What’s your address?”

“It’s 1237 Maple Court in Westbury. I can’t find a pulse.”

“Got it, 1237 Maple Court, Westbury. We have your location on screen."

“Hurry! Doing chest compression now," I pant. It's physical work under any circumstances.

“Just keep doing CPR, ma’am. You’re breathing for him too?”


“Is the door access code still 61717?”

“That’s right.”

“Stay with me, ma’am. I’ve dispatched fire and rescue. The paramedics will be there within five to seven minutes. Where are you in the house?”

“Upstairs. In the master bathroom."

“What’s your name, ma’am?"

“Jessamyn Quilter. I'm a doctor. I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

“We've got the ambulance patched in now. They’ll take over and help you until the paramedics arrive. Go ahead, NorthStar.”

“This is Miguel with NorthStar Unit 3. Dr. Quilter, can you hear me?"

“There’s no pulse. I can’t get his heart started."

“Hang in there, Doctor. We’re almost there. Just keep breathing and compressing for him.”

“Please hurry. I hear sirens.”

“That will be fire and rescue. We’re right behind them.”

The front door flies open. Someone is racing up the stairs.

“Fire and rescue,” a woman shouts. “We’re coming up, Doctor.”

“Let us take over, Dr. Quilter,” she says, kneeling beside the body to relieve me. I recognize her. She's been in my emergency department before. Her partner applies an oxygen mask and fires up the portable defibrillator.

I pick up my phone and get out of their way. After a few more moments of broadcasting our little drama for the benefit of the 911 dispatcher, I disconnect the call.

“Drugs?” the young woman asks, taking in my carefully staged scene with the bottles and the syringe.

“CAVERJECT,” I say. She nods as if it suddenly makes perfect sense he’s lying there naked next to an empty syringe.

“He’s asystolic,” her partner paramedic announces. “Defib’s not gonna help.”

The NorthStar Unit 3 team races upstairs to join the party.

“Let’s get a line in and give him some epi,” someone says.

I’ve seen it all, and been in the middle of it, countless times. Epinephrine won’t help him now. Nothing they are doing will help. He flatlined long before I began my charade with 911, and he’s not coming back.

The ambulance ride to the hospital won’t be lights and sirens. Just courtesy transportation to the cold room. After another fifteen minutes of hard work, the first responders know that as well.

The NorthStar crew rolls my dead husband onto a gurney and covers him with a sheet. I fill everyone in on what I want them to know, including his medical history. They nod their heads in understanding—another heart attack. Couldn’t be anything else.

Sometime during all this, the police show up and take a cursory look around. “Remember to lock up, Doctor, and take your keys with you,” one officer says. They leave. Nothing to see here. Everybody moves on.

[Installment 10]

Chapter Two Murder (continued)

The ambulance ride is oddly calming. The rent-a-doc who covers when I’m not on duty meets us at the emergency entrance. He formally pronounces my husband dead on arrival and offers his condolences. Asks if he can write me a prescription, but I decline. There are plenty of samples in my office desk drawer, thanks to the drug reps. That's where I'm headed.

The charge nurse, Patty Landner, rustles up some tea, which hits the spot with half a Valium, and she calls an Uber. She promises to let hospital admin know what has happened and to check on me in the morning. The driver is mercifully silent on the way home.

The cat comes out of hiding to meet me as I open the front door. He rubs up against me and purrs, wanting to be picked up, but I disappoint him again. “Tough titty, Miss Kitty,” my late husband would have said. He never liked the cat, and the feeling was mutual. Why he called him Miss Kitty, when he’s a tomcat, I don’t know. His warped sense of humor, I guess. The house feels strangely empty but not unpleasantly so.

The Valium I swallowed with my tea earlier this evening has worn off. I take another half before I go to bed and drift off to sleep.

The phone wakes me about eight. It’s the hospital administrator calling to offer her condolences. Someone from HR will be in touch about a leave of absence, but for now she’s placing me on paid bereavement leave.

Breakfast is coffee and a frozen toaster waffle. After my second cup, I call Jerry Finsterwald.

Jerry’s not the warmest roll in the basket, but he’s a competent and reliable attorney. After telling him as much of the story as I want him to hear, he says he’ll notify the college and arrange for the Neptune people to pick up the body from the morgue.

I get through the next couple of weeks of obligatory, grieving widowhood without incident. People are nice to me. Casseroles, sympathy cards, and flowers arrive. Nobody says I’m better off without him, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. Nobody has a good word to say about my deceased husband.

The college fields a memorial service with tributes by the usual bobbleheads, including the president, the dean of faculty, and a coven of mathematicians looking like impotent wizards stripped of their magic chalk and enchanted blackboards.

They speak, with little emotion, of my late husband’s devotion to pedagogy and his thirst for knowledge. They pay homage to his fizzled efforts to crack the Novikov conjecture, which nobody tries to explain, and which now languishes unsolved, waiting for the next unwitting soul to pick up the torch and stumble forth into the darkness.

The president of the student body, an otherwise unremarkable woman headed for a career in one of those majors like fashion design or criminal justice that have become safe havens for directionless young people overwhelmed by academic rigor, unveils a plaque to be displayed somewhere in the hallowed halls. I’m amazed they’ve had time to gin one up.

A driver sees me home, accompanied by the institution’s thoughts and prayers and a framed proclamation. The college will probably wait a decent interval before someone from the development office comes calling.

Jerry Finsterwald will be ready for them. I absolutely want to help make up for all the abuse my deceased husband heaped on his students over the years. Perhaps a scholarship in memory of DeShawn Livingston. And a large bequest to the university’s Gender and Sexualities Alliance. Splendid ideas that would chap my late husband’s butt if he were still alive. I enjoy the thought of him turning in his grave.

I kick off my shoes, pour a slug of Tanqueray from the bottle in the freezer, and take my drink to the couch. I decide to take the bottle as well. The cat jumps into my lap, purring insistently, and rolls over to claim his raincheck belly rub. By the second glass of gin, I’m thinking about what my life will be like from now on.

There’s no good reason to continue working in the emergency department. I’ll ask Jerry to let HR know and close things down. Beyond that, I have no plans.

That’s not like me. I typically plan my life to a fare-thee-well. All that’s changed now. No more Wednesday sex nights. Perhaps no sex nights at all. That’s fine. I’ll take it as it comes.

By the third Tanqueray, with the help of Netflix, a crazy possibility materializes in my mind. Captain Phillips. An ocean voyage to transition into the next chapter of my life. Not that I have any desire to be captured by Somali pirates, but a long voyage aboard a slow freighter might be just what the doctor ordered.

The cat follows me upstairs to the king-size bed, wonderfully empty now. I claim the middle and the cat buries himself under the comforter at the foot. Neither of us misses my late husband in the slightest. 

[Installment 11]

Chapter Three No Regrets

WESTBURY, Mass., April 4

Things are settling into a new routine. In the weeks following my husband’s death, I’ve been thinking about what the future holds. We have scattered his ashes at sea. Jerry Finsterwald and his merry elves have tidied up the loose financial and legal ends of our defunct marriage. I have gone through my late husband’s things, donating what might be useful to charity, throwing the rest of it, including photos of us, into the trash. There’s no need for such reminders of the past. They hold no key to the future.

We've never had a lot of possessions, but between us we accumulated a considerable library. My deceased husband’s reading tastes were not wide-ranging. He had some interest in science fiction, left over from his nerdy boyhood, so there are some classics on the shelves by the likes of Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. There are also a few books on chess and game theory, but his biggest contribution to our library was books on mathematics.

There are also far too many outdated chemistry and biology texts, journals, and mind-choking treatises on the arcana of medical practice. Some of these I donated to the university along with the math books. Let them worry about disposing of them. They dare not refuse them because my late husband was one of their own, and the development office is still sniffing around hoping for more lucrative gifts.

I kept nothing that was his. Other books and journals I no longer need went straight into the dumpster. Recycling books is more difficult than one would think.

Except my trashy novels. It's my habit to dispose of my beloved romance novels, once read, by dropping them off at hospital patient services. The volunteer coordinator jokes good-naturedly about my literary tastes, calling me “Dr. Bodice Ripper,” but she reports that my trashy novels are the first to fly off the rolling book cart.

The remaining books in our library reflect more catholic tastes. There are choice pickings, including books beloved of the college literature and philosophy professors I studied with, many I was too young to appreciate. I vowed to reread them.

I majored in humanities as an undergraduate, taking only the bare minimum of science and math courses needed to make the cut for medical school. I remember my advisor opining I could do worse than read the famous Harvard Classics, Dr. Eliot’s five-foot shelf of books.   

All fine if you want to limit your intellectual exposure to long-dead white men. I later bought a used set online for our library. Mostly they have just gathered dust.

I blow the dust off Volume 33, “Voyages and Travels,” and thumb through it. Maybe I’ll draw some inspiration fromThe Famous Voyage of SIR FRANCIS DRAKE into the South Sea, and therehence about the whole Globe of the Earth, begun in the year of our Lord 1577.” I can’t say it grabs me, though the word "therehence" amuses me. I put the volume back with its dusty brethren.

Still, I have an opportunity to get serious about my writing. I’ve always thought I would write a novel or some short stories, but something always gets in the way. Nothing’s stopping me now.

Perhaps I should get out of Westbury. Take a lengthy trip. If a cross-country jaunt or even a voyage around the world could provide time and inspiration to write, why not?

I considered renting an RV, taking it cross-country, perhaps even into Canada or Mexico. But a slow-moving ship, like Captain Phillips’ MV Maersk Alabama, where someone else is driving, is much more appealing. Not that I want to write a seafaring tale, like Moby Dick or Two Years Before the Mast. But the solace of a freighter might midwife a short story or two, perhaps a novella, if not a weightier tome.

Too much around here reminds me of the past. Without my work and my deceased husband, I’ve become irrelevant to everyone except the cat. So I have decided to rent out the house, put my books and other possessions into storage, find a welcoming home for the cat (I’m looking at you, Nurse Patty Landner), and hit the road. Or, rather, go “sailing over the bounding main.”

[Installment 12]

Chapter Three No Regrets (continued)

The time spent in our library has triggered other memories. I was born smack in the middle of the Gen X baby bust, too late to experience the bohemian life of the beat generation or the swinging sixties. By the time I got to college, the summer of love had come full circle to the winter of our discontent. There was still a bit of raving, but it was going stale, as was my boyfriend, Pyotr.

He was brilliant. And gorgeous. It was easy to get lost in his crystalline, ice-blue eyes. He said he loved me. I’m not sure whether I loved him, but I went along for the ride. What did I know of love?

Pyotr and I were pre-med. We lived together off campus during the second half of my junior year, contemplating the mysteries of the universe and our place in it, listening to Alice In Chains, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots.

Sex was wondrous at first, but in the end, undependable. He would parachute Molly and want to cuddle and hug. Or shoot smack when he should have been studying. I wasn’t into drugs, although doing an occasional line with him was fun. Cuddling was fine, but I also wanted to fuck. I wanted the intensity of love. He just wanted more drugs.

Speedballing inexorably destroyed his plans to become a physician, and he followed the ass-end of raver culture to Seattle where he OD’d like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and far too many young, talented dreamers who blew out their opiate receptors.

Pyotr’s decision to drop out of school, and his death, left an enormous hole in my heart. I missed the sex, and the brilliance of our conversation in the early part of our relationship. Even when things went south there was comfort in knowing he was still mine.

I understand the power of drugs, but I never thought they would take him away from me. If I was in love with him it didn’t make any difference now. I was overtaken by the “sweetish sickness” Sartre talks about in Nausea. Angry. Betrayed. Revolted by my own meaningless existence and the carelessness with which Pyotr threw himself—and us—away. I had never let myself get that close to anyone before. I resolved never to let anyone get that close to me again.

Nobody ever did. My late husband was never in the running.

All that’s in the past. It’s time to start living in the present, even the future.  

I don’t regret the past. Perhaps I should, but no. Maybe a little disappointed with myself, yes. Angry for not paying attention, for mistaking my marriage and career for a life, for allowing my soul to be sucked dry by my abusive vampire of a husband.

Do I regret killing him? No. Not sorry. Did I love him? No, you will say, since I killed him. Love isn't the issue.  

Everything ends in death. My life will too. I’ve done my part as a physician, keeping many people from slipping into the beyond before their time. But regret for scooting my husband along toward his own private eternity? Not a smidgeon. Happy to help.

I looked at myself in the mirror last night and thought for an instant I saw the face of a killer looking back at me. Nope, I decided. Just me. No saint but no sinner either. Just a beat-up physician who’s had enough of abuse.

No more, no longer. No heaven, no hell. I figured out a long time ago that Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam.

[Installment 13]

Chapter Four Hell, Yes!

WESTBURY, Mass., May 24

It’s exhilarating, planning the next chapters of my life. The effluvium of YouTube has surfaced some useful nuggets about travel on cargo ships. The internet is enlightening me further about sea lanes, ports of call, and the logistics of modern-day freighter travel.

Gone, apparently, are the days where one might work passage aboard a tramp steamer. Modern cargo ships sometimes have room for a few paying guests, never more than a dozen and typically not more than half that.

It’s even possible to find oneself the sole passenger on a cargo ship, but I hope that’s not the case. I secretly hope to meet some adventuresome souls who’ve chosen a freighter over a Disney Cruise.

I’m compiling a list of things I might need on an extended sea voyage. It’s short. Since I’ll end up lugging everything myself, the shorter the list, the better.

Toiletries, some clothing I can wash out on board, identity documents, and a bit of cash. I won’t need money on board, but it’ll come in handy for port calls.

I never travel without my medical bag, though I don’t think I’ll need it beyond seasick remedies and first aid supplies. No doubt it’s more security blanket than anything else, but given a choice between the purse most women can’t be without and my medical bag, the bag wins hands down.

Of course I’ll take my laptop and cell phone, a journal, and my Mont Blanc fountain pen. Every writer needs a journal and a Mont Blanc.

The laptop holds all the e-books and reference materials I’ll need for my writing, my favorite music, and a few movies, but only a few. A writer needs to write, not binge-watch movies.

My plan is to back up my work to the cloud when we’re in ports with decent Wi-Fi. If the kraken drags us into the abyss and I sink with my writing to the bottom of some watery canyon, what’s the loss? I’ll decompose in endless solitude as the scavengers pick my bones. I plan to stay high and dry though, living and writing, not sleeping with the fishes.  

Jerry Finsterwald thinks I’m crazy, but he’s much too patrician to say so. He’s agreed to anchor my affairs ashore and arrange for documentation and other formalities, transfer funds en route, and do his best to bail me out of any trouble I might get into along the way.

The one hitch in this grand plan is my dislike of the sea. I hate beaches and bodies of open water where I can’t see the opposite shore. I’m only partly kidding about the kraken and Davy Jones’ Locker.

As a young woman I had dreams of being sucked out to sea in a riptide, watching my broken body wash ashore, dashed upon the rocks, waking up soaked in sweat, gasping for air, convinced for a long moment I was no longer alive. Occasionally I still have them.

I have confessed all of this to my shit-for-brains analyst who thinks my fear of the sea is a fear of my sexuality, a fear of being swept away and drowning in a metaphorical sea of pleasure. The French, he pontificated, call an orgasm la petite mort, “the little death.”

I can lose myself in sex with the right person. Never with my late husband, of course, but I recall a few times with Pyotr, both of us drenched in passion, orgasm after orgasm, when we washed up on the shore, exhausted, punch drunk, sated. The French know what they’re talking about. It does feel like a little death, a deliciously louche, buzzy suspension of life.

I want more of that. I’m not on the prowl, but now that my deceased husband’s ashes lie in the mud off the coast of Massachusetts, and Pyotr’s (I like to think) are forever thrashing in Puget Sound, I wouldn't say no to any fireworks that might come my way.

No, Dr. Freud, I’m not afraid of either la petite mort or la grande mort. Only open water. But it’s time to get past that. Fear of the ocean isn’t going to stop me from living the vagabond life of a shipboard writer, peeling the world like a big fat orange, sucking the sweet sticky juice, feasting on the pulp.

All of that settled, the details of getting aboard a ship remain. Where will I go? It doesn’t matter. I’ll start out somewhere and end up somewhere else. If a destination port catches my fancy, I might disembark and spend a few days or weeks, then catch another ship and continue my journey.

The nearest seaport to Westbury is Conley Terminal in South Boston. Or I could fly across the globe and ride the ships back home. A long voyage from Japan to the Netherlands via the Suez Canal sounds just right, two months afloat, give or take, with some time to knock around Europe if the mood strikes me.

Perhaps another long voyage after that. Maybe across the Atlantic to South America. It’s heady stuff.

A few weeks ago my life was stagnant, tethered to an abusive husband, plodding through a comfortable but humdrum life. And now, this.

A future.

Hell, yes!

[Installment 14]

Chapter Five Tokyo

WESTBURY, Mass., June 25

Patty Landner can be a fussbudget. “You sure you’re going to be okay? You don’t understand a word of Japanese,” she says, emerging from the Callahan Tunnel on our way to Logan International. Patty, my favorite emergency department nurse, is my self-appointed caretaker these days since I’ve quit my job.

We merge with a stomach-churning lurch onto Route 1A North toward the airport. They don’t call her “lead-foot Landner” for nothing. I don’t see how anyone can drive in Boston, but of course, nurses can do anything.

Everyone except me seems concerned about me traveling on my own. I’ve stuck close to home for years except for the occasional short junket to a medical conference.

“Language won’t be much of a barrier,” I say. “The passenger service agent for the shipping line has paved the way as much as possible. Jerry Finsterwald has arranged for someone who is fluent in both English and Japanese to meet me at the airport and shepherd me through customs.”

“Do you know what you’ll be doing once you land?”  

“I’m just spending a few days in Tokyo before setting sail. I’m sure everything will go well. Besides, my friends at the embassy will take good care of me,” I lie.

Only Jerry knows my trip will not be a short one. I told everyone else I’d be visiting friends stationed at the American embassy in Tokyo before going to a resort in Thailand for a couple of weeks. Perhaps going on an extended cruise after that.

In fact, I have no friends at the embassy or anywhere else in Japan. And if I ever set foot in Thailand, it will only be on shore leave at some run-down port of call.

“Well, you know you can always call me if you get in trouble or need anything,” Patty says. She moonlights as a nurse for a travel insurance company. She’s told me about some of her white-knuckle experiences, medevacking mangled tourists and business executives from far-flung locales.

“I’ll be fine, Patty, but I appreciate the lifeline.” We drive up to the passenger drop-off, hug, and say our goodbyes. I make my way through security on the third floor of International Terminal E to my JAL departure gate. I feel almost giddy.

My plane is delayed several hours for one of the usual reasons, something about needing to replace a malfunctioning warning light on the thingamajig, but things get sorted and it’s time to board. I roll my carry-on down the jetway, find my window seat in the first cabin, and settle in for the long flight to Narita Airport.

The flight attendants make an irritating trip more bearable by unlimited Suntory Toki whiskey. So does the Valium I swallowed an hour before liftoff. At least I nap.

Sleep has become dicey of late, unusual for me. I usually sleep the sleep of the just. I chalk up my insomnia to the many changes in my life over the past few weeks. Waking up each day, alone except for the cat, has been disorienting. I’m not lonely, but the aloneness is odd.

Speaking of cats. A few days ago I had a technicolor dream. I was standing in a clearing in a rainforest. A large cat of some sort, by the looks of it a jaguar, padded out from the undergrowth and approached me, staring into my eyes, its breath unpleasant on my face. I woke to discover, of course, that my fat tomcat had taken up residence on my chest, inches from my nose.

I shooed him off and went back to sleep. But the next morning, the image of this powerful dreamcat lingered. Unusual for me. I don’t often remember dreams other than those recurrent nightmares of drowning, which don’t bother me much anymore.

And last night, this same jungle cat reappeared. This time when I awoke, there was no cat lounging on me. My tomcat had already taken up residence with Patty Landner.

These dreams of cats are not nightmares. The cats are not menacing, and I’m not frightened, but I’m surprised to be having dreams at all. There is something otherworldly, something I can’t put my finger on, about these dreamcats. They’re unsettling.

[Installment 15]

Chapter Five Tokyo (continued)

There are no more visits from dreamcats en route. The Suntory/Valium cocktail has done its job well. The flight seems much shorter than the scheduled fourteen hours. Touchdown in Tokyo is smooth, customs is smooth, and the guide Jerry Finsterwald hired is smooth. Perhaps a little too smooth, but nothing I can’t handle.

Part of what I told Patty was true. I booked a brief stay in Tokyo to relax before setting sail, figuring that would be long enough to make certain I wanted to get on the ship. I don’t plan to chicken out, but there’s always that possibility, faced with the reality of trusting my life to a hunk of metal surrounded by eternal reaches of water.

The guide deposits me at the Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills for a few nights of luxury and sightseeing before meeting my ship, the MV Andaman Pearl, and embarking on a pokey two-month journey to Rotterdam.

Tokyo isn’t for me. It’s too crowded, too frenetic. My tour guide doesn't understand. Why would I come all the way from America to the Ginza and not want to shop? Or why would I want to take in the scene in Shinjuku and Kabuki Cho since I'm not interested in bars, karaoke, or pretty boys?

After three nights, I abandon Tokyo and take a cab half an hour south to Yokohama where the pleasures of the city are more to my liking. Yokohama Bay sparkles a brilliant azure, festooned with working boats, luxury yachts, passenger liners, and of course, cargo ships.

I wander into Itoya on Motomachi Shopping Street, intending to buy yet another journal for the voyage. There's an astonishing collection of opulent fountain pens, luscious inks, and elegant stationery. I select a jade-green journal with a red silk ribbon and an image of a maneki-neko, the cheerful Asian good luck cat, debossed on the cover.

I've never journaled religiously, only when I couldn't outrun the muse. There's a folder on my laptop labeled “Scrapbook,” containing infrequent notes to myself and snippets of this and that found on the web. The computer will probably be just fine for writing. My bet is the journal will remain pristine.

For all Yokohama’s appeal, I’m impatient to begin my adventure at sea. For one last night on land, I luxuriate at the Yokohama Royal Park Hotel, spending the evening savoring an eighteen-year-old Yamazaki single malt, soaking in a jet tub with a view through a porthole overlooking the spectacular bay.

The bubbling water and the whiskey conspire to make me heavy lidded. This time the dreamcat doesn’t wait for me to fall asleep. He just stares into my eyes as if there were something important he needs to tell me, but when I surface from my boozy haze and blink my eyes, he has evaporated like the Cheshire Cat. And then my dead husband’s leering face pops into my thoughts. I don’t see it as much as feel it, like pinpricks running down my back. I can’t explain, but it brings to mind what some of my patients have told me about the aura they experience before a migraine.

I get out of the tub shivering, wrap myself in an impossibly soft bath sheet, pad over to my turned-down bed, and burrow in. Whatever all that was with the dreamcat and my late husband, it’s gone by the time I reach the bed.

I hadn’t noticed the smiling porcelain maneki-neko on a side table in the south-east corner of my room, his left paw beckoning rhythmically. It’s identical to the one near the cash register at the Lotus Garden in Westbury, right down to the color and design—white with brown spots, its collar and the insides of its ears painted red, a golden oval koban coin around its neck.

I reflect upon this fortunate omen, the long-suffering proprietress of the Lotus Garden who apologized to me once when I caught her flipping off my deceased husband, and when she learned of his demise, sent an elaborate box of Chinese flaky pastry and egg tarts to my home with her condolences. I reflect on the smallness of the world.

At some point I must have closed my eyes because when I open them again the night has vanished and my room is awash in light. I’m starving, and I have a rendezvous to keep. I check out of the hotel after breakfast and hail a taxi to the docks and my adventure aboard the container ship MV Andaman Pearl.

[Installment 16]

Chapter Six MV Andaman Pearl

YOKOHAMA, Japan, June 29

The MV Andaman Pearl gleams in the early morning sunlight, her white hull with gold lettering reflected in the rippling aqua of Yokohama Bay. I approach the ship, luggage in tow, as I was instructed. There’s no need for a ticket. I’m expected.

The passenger agent for Andaman World Marine said all I needed to do was show up dockside and ask around. I was told that delays are possible, even likely. And that’s the case today. Some containers destined for the ship have not yet arrived at the dock, but the small feeder ship carrying them is en route. The ship won’t sail until sometime tomorrow afternoon.

Ships like the Andaman Pearl sail when their cargo is aboard, when the tide is right, or whenever the captain decides it’s time to leave. If I’m not on board when the ship is ready to sail, she will leave without me. When should I be on board? Nobody knows for sure, but I shouldn’t worry. Just show up again tomorrow about the same time.

I’m not unhappy about spending another day in Yokohama, wandering around the Cosmo World Amusement Park, an easy walk from my hotel. Theme parks have never appealed to me, but something about the Cosmo Clock 21, the world’s largest clock-style Ferris wheel, draws me in.

The air is pristine and from the top of the ride, with all of Yokohama at my feet and Mt. Fuji in the background, I feel truly at peace. I’m filled with the sense I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing. That I have made all the right choices.

I admit to some nagging feelings of…what? Remorse? Guilt? Not those, exactly, but a vague sense that perhaps I didn’t need to go as far as I did, that I might have found a less momentous way to extract myself from the tar pit of his abuse. It’s not like me though, to second guess myself. Second-guessing has never served me well.

I browse the shops in the amusement park and am seduced by a window display of hundreds of porcelain lucky cats. I select a smallish one, maybe six inches high, brown and white calico with a red collar and ears. There’s something soothing about all those smiling, waving cats. Good fortune seems assured.   

The following morning a taxi returns me to the quay where the Andaman Pearl is loading cargo. I walk toward the ship, pulling a rolling case with my clothing and toiletries. My physician’s black bag, where I have stashed the maneki-neko for safekeeping, is strapped on top with my camera bag containing my Canon EOS 7D Mark II and laptop. I’m wearing a fanny pack with my phone, a small amount of currency, a couple of bank cards, my passport, and travel documents.

A trim, Filipino man dressed in a modest khaki uniform spots me. I’m sure I look out of place. He breaks away from the loading operation and approaches me. He appears to already know who I am, and if he has any doubts, my black bag has likely sealed the deal.

“Welcome to the Andaman Pearl, Dr. Quilter. Masaya Bayani, captain of the ship, at your service,” he says, extending his hand. His smile radiates warmth and fits perfectly with his neatly trimmed beard.

“Jessamyn Quilter,” I say, taking his hand. “So nice to meet you.”

“We’re still loading her so you’re a bit early, but those containers we’ve been waiting for are all here now. We’ll sail this afternoon.”

He turns toward the ship and whistles through his fingers. “Eric,” he yells. A slim, lightly muscled young Asian man dressed in khaki jogs over.

“Dr. Quilter, may I present the ship’s second officer, Eric Reyes,” the captain says, introducing us. “Eric will get your belongings to your cabin and show you the ropes on board. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe to leave your bags with him.” 

Captain Bayani checks his clipboard. “Owner’s cabin, Eric. Sorry we don’t have time to get better acquainted, but if you’ll come back around noon, Eric will get you settled before we push off. We’ll call your cell if we need you sooner. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you in the second officer’s capable hands.”

The captain trots back toward the ship, whistling and shouting something in a language I don’t understand to someone whose work seems not to be meeting his standards.

Eric is handsome, and vaguely erotic feelings buzz around in my mind, looking for a place to settle in my body. I hadn’t expected anything like this.

Stop it, Jessamyn. This isn’t one of your sleazy romance novels.

“We should be ready to go about three o’clock this afternoon, Dr. Quilter,” he says. “Once you come aboard, make sure you don’t leave because we could sail without further notice, and we want to make sure not to leave you behind.

I nod my understanding.

“We have five guests for the first part of our voyage. Two couples plus you. The captain’s daughter, Lovely, will join us when we make port in Manila. You’ll have time to meet everyone at the mandatory safety briefing and orientation after we leave port.”

Six of us altogether. I hope there’s a firecracker or two in the bunch.

“I can’t tell you how happy we are to have you with us, Dr. Quilter,” the second officer says. “I’m the ship’s PICOMC—person in charge of medical care. We seldom have a proper doctor on board, but I’m glad when we do.”

“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Reyes. I’m sure you’re more than up to handling anything that comes your way, but I’ll be happy to assist if you need me.”

“Please call me Eric if you like. I appreciate your offer and can’t wait to show you our ship’s cozy little one-bed hospital,” he says with a broad grin.

He waves his arms to attract the attention of a squat, solidly built, middle-aged Filipino man who runs over to join us.

“Don’t worry about your bags, Dr. Quilter. Lagac will get them safely to your cabin.”

Lagac has a high-voltage smile and sparkling dark eyes. Already I like him. More than like. Those unexpected erotic feelings have anchored themselves in my pelvis. I’m disappointed when he breaks eye contact and hustles my luggage toward the ship, but I make a note to look for him on board.

“You might want to get lunch at the Crab Pot while you wait, Dr. Quilter,” the second officer says, gesturing to a nondescript shack on the pier. “We’ll feed you later this evening once we're underway.

“Better get back to work.” He double checks my cell number and jogs off.

[Installment 17]

Chapter Six MV Andaman Pearl

YOKOHAMA, Japan, June 29

The seafood soup at the Crab Pot is magnificent, laden with squid, tuna, scallops, mushrooms, and bean sprouts. They tempted me to try the flying fish, but I thought better of it.   

I was told during my initial video conference with the Andaman World Marine passenger service agent that meals won’t be up to cruise-ship standards, but food will be plentiful and sometimes quite good, depending upon the talent and inclinations of the cook. And since the Andaman Pearl flies the flag of the Philippines, and has a Filipino crew, I could expect lots of rice. I hope the infirmary has a scale.

I finish my lunch at the Crab Pot, keeping the back of what I now think of as “my ship” in sight. Even though she’s officially a medium-sized ship, I didn’t appreciate how large she is. The booking agent said she was “middling,” about 900 feet long and 60 feet wide, handily able to traverse the Suez Canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. She can carry 3,000 standard shipping containers, each as large as an eighteen-wheeler, stacked in the holds and on her main deck.

The full gantry cranes quayside tower over the ship, flying containers from dock to deck like some gigantic robot child, playing with multicolored toy building bricks.

My cell rings.

“Dr. Quilter? Eric Reyes here.”

My heart skips a beat.

"We’re ready for you. I’ll meet you alongside the ship."

The second officer is waiting at the gangplank with four other people as I approach.

“Ah,” he says. “Here’s Dr. Quilter now. Allow me to make introductions. Dr. Quilter, may I present Mr. and Mrs. Agarwal, Miss Lewes-Haley, and Mr. Yongzheng?” We shake hands all around.

“Jessamyn Quilter,” I say. “Pleased to meet all of you.”

“Balwinder and Chana Agarwal,” Mr. Agarwal says stiffly. Mrs. Agarwal says nothing. Neither of them meets my eyes. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

I’m sure he doesn’t mean it.

“Hello, Dr. Quilter. Shantrelle Lewes-Haley. Nice to meet you.” She’s a gorgeous young black woman, American by her accent, radiating warmth.

“Yongzheng Shun,” he says, offering his hand. “Please call me Shun.” Malay Chinese, I guess, slender and carefully groomed. He reminds me of a crack neurosurgeon back home. I wouldn’t call him handsome, but he seems quite pleasant. His hand rests lightly at Shantrelle’s waist.

No mistaking it—Shun and Shantrelle are in love. Newlyweds? I’ll have to find out more later. But I’m happy they’re along for the ride, something I can’t say about the Agarwals. No firecrackers, they.

“Now, if you will head up the gangplank, we’ll be on our way shortly,” the second officer says.

The Agarwals lead the parade. We gather on deck under a bright orange lifeboat suspended above us.

“In an emergency, we will all meet here. The crew will lower the rescue craft to this deck and help you board. There's food, water, a medical kit, and other emergency supplies on board and a transponder that will tell anyone looking for us where we are. It’s fully enclosed, big enough for all of us, and will keep us all safe until help arrives. There’s another one on the other side of the ship if for some reason this one won’t launch.”

I can’t imagine being stuck in one of those things in the ocean's vastness. I hope I never have to.

“Flotation devices,” the second officer says, handing a fluorescent vest to each of us. “Try them on now. I’ll help you make any needed adjustments. It’s impossible to put them on the wrong way,” he says and smiles.

“Notice there’s a whistle attached and a light that will activate if the jacket gets wet. You will probably never need them, and there’s no need to wear them around the ship unless the captain tells us to. There’s a hook just inside the door in your cabins specifically designated for your flotation device, so it will be close at hand if needed. There are extras on the rescue craft if you can’t get to your personal life jacket.”

“How likely are we to need any of this lifeboat stuff?” Mr. Agarwal asks, the irritation in his voice unmistakable. Mrs. Agarwal stands meekly beside him, about a foot behind.

"Not likely at all,” the second officer says.

Mrs. Agarwal struggles to fasten the flotation device over the layers of clothing she wears. When Eric attempts to assist her, Mr. Agarwal rebuffs him.

“I am her husband. I will see to it,” he says.

He’s arrogant, possessive, and rude—qualities I dislike most in people.

“In all my many years at sea we’ve never needed the rescue craft or the flotation devices,” the second officer continues. “Still, we must be prepared. We'll drill launching and retrieving the rescue crafts once or twice while we’re at sea to make certain everything works properly.”

“Do we get to ride along?” Shantrelle asks.

The second officer laughs. “Nope. The drill is only for the crew.”

“Too bad,” she says. “It sounds like fun.”

A firecracker that one. She sounds like fun.

A loud clank causes us to flinch.

“Just the gangplank being stowed,” the second officer says with a reassuring smile. “Nothing to worry about. You’ll get used to the ship’s noises. It will still be another quarter of an hour before we get underway, so let’s go up to F deck and get you comfortable in your cabins.”

[Installment 18]

Chapter Six MV Andaman Pearl (Continued)

F deck is up five flights of stairs in the ship’s “accommodation,” the structure near the back of the ship rising from the deck like a small office building. There’s an elevator, but it would have been a tight squeeze for all of us. Everyone manages the stairs without difficulty. We follow the second officer through a door from the stairwell onto F deck.

“We’re in what you might call the hallway of F deck,” the second officer says. “We call it the ‘alley.’ What you call ‘walls,’ we call ‘bulkheads.’ And our bathrooms are ‘heads.’ We have many more terms to confuse you but it won’t offend us if you call them halls, walls, and bathrooms.

“F deck is also called the owners deck because the original owners of the ship and their friends or business associates would occupy these cabins when they joined the crew for the journey. All your cabins are on this deck. It’s fancier than the rest of the ship where the officers and crew work and live,” he says.

“There are three decks above you—G deck, where the captain, the chief engineer and I live, above that, the bridge deck where we operate the ship, and above that, the topmost deck called Monkey Island, housing the exposed parts of our instruments, like the radar array, our communications antennae, and the mast leading up to our ‘Christmas tree,’ or navigation lights.

“One deck down from us is E deck where the rest of the officers live. Able sailors and cadets live on D and C decks, and many of the ship’s important functional spaces, like the galley, recreation rooms, library, and the messes are on B Deck. The infirmary, storage, and some machinery rooms are on A Deck.

I’m not sure I can remember all of this.

Eric anticipates my uncertainty. “Don’t worry,” he says. “There are signs on the bulkhead at every deck level and in the elevator to orient you. You’ll soon feel right at home.

“Dr. Quilter,” he says, “this cabin facing the bow or front of the ship is yours. Mr. Yongzheng and Miss Lewes-Haley, your cabin faces the stern, or back of the ship, across the alley from Dr. Quilter. Mr. and Mrs. Agarwal, you also face the stern, in the next cabin down across from the saloon. There’s an empty cabin next to yours, and at the end of the alley is another set of stairs, which we call ‘ladders,’ by the way, identical to the ones we came up on so you can get to your cabins from either side of the ship.

“We have a saloon on board?” Shun asks. He’s soft-spoken, relaxed, a little difficult to read.

“Just an old-timey word for an entertaining or lounging area,” the second officer says. “You can think of it as a place where the original owners entertained their business guests or held meetings. The saloon has a small bar, tables, and comfortable seating. It also has a concert grand piano, something most cargo ships don’t have, so if you play, you’re in luck. The captain’s daughter is an accomplished pianist. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear her practicing all the way from Manila to Le Havre where she will leave us.

“Settle in and make yourselves comfortable. You’re welcome to wander anywhere on the ship, including the bridge. Think of yourselves as the temporary owners of the Andaman Pearl. We won’t tell corporate in Manila, although if you would like to buy the ship, I’m sure they would love to talk with you,” he joked.

He opens the doors to each of our cabins and hands us keys. I peek through the door to my cabin and it takes my breath away. It’s beyond fancy.

“If you want to poke around up top on Monkey Island or go belowdecks to the engine room we’ll have someone show you around to keep you safe," he says as we head to our cabins. "The officers and crew will do their best to be helpful to you, keeping in mind our first job is to move those big boxes piled all around us from one part of the ocean to another.

“Let’s meet in the saloon in half an hour and get better acquainted. Until then, I’ll leave you on your own while I see if the captain has need for me on the bridge."

I’m astonished at the lavish quarters I’ve been assigned. I’d heard from some nurses at the hospital who’d been on cruise ships that they barely had room to turn around in their cabins. My cabin is larger than the suite I occupied at the Yokohama Royal Park Hotel and every bit as posh. The original owners clearly required luxury, even aboard a working vessel, and had the wherewithal to afford it.

The cabin has the ambience of a private club, finished throughout with cherry paneling, gilded sconces, and chandeliers. The floor is pink marble. Handmade carpets accent the sitting, sleeping, and working areas.

The kitchenette is well equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, and other appliances. There’s even a dishwasher, cabinets, and drawers aplenty, holding pots and pans, tableware, and linens. A breakfast nook wrapped in a banquette against an adjacent wall invites informal dining. Portholes provide light and a feeling of spaciousness.

A sizeable coffee table with facing black leather couches on either side defines the middle of the cabin. It’s the ideal place to read and relax. A door to one side of the sitting area leads to a private deck with bamboo flooring, lounge furniture, and an unobstructed view of the ocean beyond a painted white railing. Everything is discretely screened from the bridge wing above, a perfect place for nude sunbathing, something I’ve never done in my life. Now I have no excuse.

I’m delighted to find a spacious workspace on the other side of the sitting area, a perfect place for my laptop. There’s an ebony corner bookcase and matching desk with an integrated reading lamp, a concealed pop-up flat-screen monitor, and a pullout laser printer. A plush high-backed computer chair completes an efficient space for writing.

The sleeping area, against the wall next to the alley, as the second officer called it, boasts a California king-sized bed, end tables with lamps, and leather massage chair. The bathroom is spacious, with a bidet, toilet, double wash basin and a tiled shower larger than I would have expected. A walk-in closet next to the bathroom provides much more space than I need to store my clothes and other belongings.

I unpack, grab a bottle of water from the fridge, and go outside to my private deck. Tugs are nosing us into the bay. Gradually, as I watch the waterfront recede, the ship moves under her own power. I see it rather than feel it. It’s magical.

There are no butterflies in my stomach now. I can’t imagine why I was so frightened of being on the ship, on open water. I take a couple of deep breaths of fresh sea air, return to my cabin, and prepare to go next door to the saloon to get better acquainted with the other passengers and hear what else the second officer might have to say.

I have liberated the maneki-neko from its temporary home in my camera bag and placed it on one of the end tables beside my bed. It’s waving arm beckons me toward my new life. My future.

[Installment 19]

Chapter Seven Mrs. Agarwal


The America I left behind is celebrating its independence today. It’s been four and a half months since I declared my own independence, beginning a new life unencumbered by a husband.

We passengers are getting our bearings. It’s been uneventful, almost boring, so far except for the frisson that comes as I remember I’m on the dream adventure I planned for myself back in Massachusetts.

I’ve spoken with the other passengers now and again in the officers’ dining room or mess where all of us eat, although not at the same time, or on the decks. We’re on our own internal clocks. The Agarwals keep to themselves, which is fine with me. Yongzheng Shun and Shantrelle Lewes-Haley are more sociable, if besotted with each other. I don’t feel ignored. It’s wonderful to see young people so much in love.

Shun is an international businessman based in Singapore and Shantrelle’s a young woman who until recently worked for his company in Los Angeles. They are to be married soon. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.

Captain Bayani is cordial when I see him, which has not been often because of his duties. He’s invited me to tour the bridge any time. Eric, the second officer, has conducted his promised tour of the infirmary, which seems adequate for most of the medical situations that might pop up on trips like this one. We’ve talked in my cabin a couple of times. He’s intelligent and engaging, even sweet, but also busy, like all the crew, with shipboard duties.

I see more of Ninoy, the messman, than anyone else in the crew. He’s a young sailor tasked with helping the cook, tidying cabins, and generally looking after the passengers. Eric says if we need anything, Ninoy is our go-to, though he’ll often be busy in the galley.

There are several other officers, able-bodied sailors, and a couple of cadets I haven’t met yet. And then there’s Lagac, the chief engineer who took my bags aboard in Yokohama.

Lagac’s dominion is the engine room. I’ve seen him on the main deck and sometimes in the officer’s mess, though our schedules don’t always match. He has an infectious energy. And yes, erotic. He’s been flirting with me, I think, although I’m not good at that sort of thing. But I’m open to learning now that there's no obstacle to furthering my education.

The ship’s cook produced an American-style barbecue earlier today that, unfortunately, I missed because of the tragic events of this morning. Since Shantrelle and I are the only two Americans on board, that's a shame, but I know he will forgive me when he learns why. I expect he will know soon enough. News travels fast aboard ship.

We’ve been at sea for five days since leaving Yokohama, sailing in the South China Sea toward Manila. It’s been smooth, if somewhat routine.

The second officer says the Chinese consider all the water in these parts a “Chinese ocean,” which means the Americans, the Europeans, and everybody else with navies are attempting to prove them wrong, stepping up training drills, insisting on their historical right to unhindered passage on the open seas.

We’ve been told Chinese “fishing boats” with armed militia are swarming Whitsun Reef and other locations off the southern Philippine island of Palawan. No question they’re trespassing in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, so the government is making a diplomatic fuss.

So far the Chinese have left us alone. Their mischief-making is far enough south of us we think we can safely ignore them for now. When we leave Manila, we’ll cross the South China Sea to our next port, Haiphong. We’ll breathe easier when we’re hugging the Vietnamese coastline.

Of course at some point we’ll find ourselves in the Arabian Sea on our way to the Suez Canal with the attendant dangers of Somali pirates. We’ll drink a toast to Captain Phillips and hope they don’t cause any trouble. Eric says not to worry about it. I didn’t fully consider until now the geopolitical storms menacing a ship like the Andaman Pearl as she goes about the mundane task of moving stuff from one place to the next.

When we reach Manila tomorrow, we’ll be taking on a few containers and leaving a few behind. The happier reason we’re stopping is so Captain Bayani and his family can celebrate his daughter’s graduation from the College of Music at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She’ll be sailing with us as far as Le Havre to embark on the next phase of her musical training in Paris.

“The sun, the moon, and all the planets dance to the music of Lovely Bayani, at least in the captain’s eyes,” Second Officer Reyes says. “You will like her. All of us do.”

Less happily, Manila will mark the end of the line for the Agarwals. I’m afraid I’m unexpectedly involved in that.

[Installment 20]

Chapter Seven

Mrs. Agarwal (Continued)

Last night, a noisy fight coming from the Agarwals’ cabin awakened me. When I saw Chana Agarwal on deck earlier this morning, she was wearing even more clothes than usual. Despite her hijab, obvious black eyes gave it all away. She tried to avoid me, but in her attempt to escape, she fainted and slumped to the deck. I rushed over to help, and when the shawl she’d been clutching around her upper body fell away, I saw the cut lip and bruises on her neck and shoulders.

“What happened, Mrs. Agarwal?” I asked. As if I didn’t know.

“I have been defiant to my husband, and he has corrected me,” she whispered, struggling to sit up.

Cases of spousal battery like this were commonplace in my emergency department. I would have known exactly what to do there—treat the injuries and report the matter to the police. The social work department would have helped. But we’re at sea, miles from law enforcement or social services of any kind.

The chief engineer, Lagac, and an able sailor I don’t know saw what was going on from the deck above us and scurried down the ladder.

“One of you please fetch the medical officer,” I said, “and we’ll need a stretcher.” The sailor rushed off to find Eric. Lagac remained behind with Mrs. Agarwal and me. I’m grateful he did.

A belligerent Balwinder Agarwal strode toward us, but Lagac blocked his approach. The engineer seems almost as wide as he is tall. Every inch of his stocky frame is packed with muscle.

“She is my wife,” Mr. Agarwal bellowed. “I told her not to come out here. Leave her to me.”

“Don’t come any closer,” I warned him.

“You do this to her?” Lagac growled, balling the fingers of his massive hands into fists.

“Get out of my way, you ugly sea-monkey,” Mr. Agarwal hissed, attempting without success to get past Lagac. “This is none of your business. My wife, my business.”

The second officer joined us just then, scanning Mrs. Agarwal’s injuries. “I’ll repeat Engineer Lagac’s question. “Did you beat your wife?”

“She is disobedient, so I may beat her, so says the Quran. I forbid you to interfere with my wife.”

“The Prophet, peace be upon him, never beat his wives,” the second officer said, his voice lowered in quiet rage. “Thus says the scholar al-Tabari. What you have done is haram and a crime. I am placing you under detention, confined until we reach Manila where we will hand you over to the authorities.

“Lagac, escort Mr. Agarwal to the brig. I will interview him later, but first I must help his wife.”

Two able sailors maneuvered Mrs. Agarwal onto the stretcher. Lagac and another sailor frog-marched a sputtering Balwinder Agarwal away.

“Don’t let them see me uncovered,” Mrs. Agarwal implored me. “Before God, only my husband can see me uncovered.”

The second officer stiffened. “Dr. Quilter, you are welcome to accompany us, and if you wish, to treat Mrs. Agarwal,” the second officer said as we made our way to the sick bay. “To be clear though, Mrs. Agarwal is not correct. Islam considers it halal, or permissible, even though it can place a man’s soul in peril, for a male medical officer to examine and treat a woman if there is no woman qualified to do so.

“Clearly you are better qualified than I to treat Mrs. Agarwal, but you are not the medical officer on this ship, and I can't demand you serve in that capacity. The choice is yours, Dr. Quilter, not Mrs. Agarwal’s.”

I considered his words for a moment. The second officer is right. He handles medical care aboard the Andaman Pearl. He’s competent to manage Mrs. Agarwal’s injuries and will holler if he requires my help. There’s no need to get wrapped up in something that could turn messy once we reach port. I'm not on this journey to practice medicine.

“Mrs. Agarwal, listen to me carefully. Mr. Reyes is the medical officer on this ship, and he is skilled at taking care of injured people. He has explained to both of us it’s perfectly permissible, according to the teachings of the religion the two of you share, for him to take care of you. It’s necessary for him to examine you carefully because your husband may have broken some of your bones and caused life-threatening internal injuries. So please put aside your fears and allow him to help you.

“Mr. Reyes, if everyone agrees, I will chaperone your examination and treatment of Mrs. Agarwal. Perhaps that will make her more comfortable.” 

In the end, it made little difference. Mrs. Agarwal lost consciousness before we reached sick bay. She was still breathing, but her pulse was weak and thready.

The second officer swiftly started her on oxygen, placed an IV, and hooked up monitors. Her readings did not look good.

“Thanks for your wisdom, Dr. Quilter. I don’t want you to feel you must go to work because of Mrs. Agarwal’s religious sensibilities. Many people misinterpret Islam. But jump in anytime with my blessings and my gratitude.”

“You’ve got this, Eric.” I helped him cut Mrs. Agarwal’s clothes off.

Eric shook his head incredulously when he saw the extent of her injuries. “My god, he did a job on her. Almost certainly something nasty going on inside, likely a ruptured spleen or a brain bleed. This isn’t the first time he’s beaten her badly.

“We're not equipped for this sort of thing. We’re going to have to do everything the old-fashioned way, and she can’t even help us by telling us where it hurts.” He drew back her eyelid, squinting through his ophthalmoscope.

The monitor started beeping. “Shit,” he said. “We’re losing her.”

She never regained consciousness.

“What’s next, Eric?” 

“I could use your help packing her with ice. If we were farther away from landfall, we could bury her at sea. As it is, she’ll be here until we can transfer her to the authorities in Manila. We’ll hope nobody else needs this gurney in the meantime.”

We said very little as we dressed Mrs. Agarwal’s body in ice and covered her with an insulating blanket. It had been much easier in Chilton when we lost a patient. We just rolled them into the cool room.

An image of my deceased husband on his own gurney in the hospital cool room back home flashed through my mind. Too bad Mrs. Agarwal didn’t kill her husband before he killed her.

“You should go back to your cabin and rest, Jessamyn. I’ll pay Mr. Agarwal a visit and stop by your cabin a little later after I have checked in with the captain. He’s going to be furious. He doesn’t like people being killed on his ship.”

“You did well, Eric. In our line of work, you save some, you lose some. If you ever decide to stop bobbing up and down in the ocean and go to medical school, count on me for a glowing reference.”

He smiled and hurried on his way. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Eric when he isn't hurrying.

[Installment 21]

Chapter Seven

Mrs. Agarwal (Continued)

In my cabin I reflect on the terror the mortally wounded Mrs. Agarwal felt thinking about Eric seeing her unclothed. We all have bodies that sometimes need the care of others. Why do we choose to live our lives in ways that cause us so much unnecessary pain?

Eric’s soul is certainly in no danger from Mrs. Agarwal, nor was Mrs. Agarwal’s soul imperiled by the relentless demons of heterosexual lust. Eric is gay.

He hasn’t told me so, and I’m not aware of any ship’s gossip to that effect, but on a couple of occasions I’ve seen him in kissing distance to a handsome junior deck officer. And yesterday as I walked a circuit around the container deck, trying to burn off some of those rice calories, I stumbled across Eric and the young officer in a recess among the shipping containers.

Eric’s pants were around his ankles. The junior deck officer was on his knees in front of him, and Eric was holding his head, guiding his face into his crotch. The junior officer’s hands were gripping Eric’s buttocks, and both were in such an advanced state of arousal I doubt they would have noticed me had I waved and shouted hello.

Of course I did no such thing. I short-circuited my walk, went back to my cabin, and pondered the vagaries of love and sex, life and death, over a cup of Lady Grey tea.

Shall I tell the second officer I saw him, however briefly, in the throes of sexual pleasure with another man? What would be the point? He didn’t see me. When a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Still, I feel twinges of…what? Uneasiness? Disappointment? Jealousy? Eric is a good-looking man. For whatever reason, erotic feelings have ambushed me from time to time since I freed myself of my late husband. Eric sparked one of those ambushes when I first saw him on the docks at Yokohama.

I know I have no right to make assumptions about Eric’s sexuality based upon what I saw. Men have surely looked for release wherever they might find it ever since they’ve gone to sea.

Maybe he has a girlfriend, or a wife at home like the captain, and was just taking his pleasure where he found it. Maybe he’s bisexual. Who knows? But more to the point, why am I even thinking about it?

My nascent erotic interest in the second officer has evaporated, but I remain interested in other ways. Perhaps it’s how Eric comported himself with Mrs. Agarwal and her thuggish husband. He struggled so valiantly to save her.

Eric is invaluable on the Andaman Pearl. Surely his career would meet a swift end if his foolish behavior among the containers were to surface. I’m not sure why I feel so protective of him, but I’ve changed my mind about ignoring what I saw. Both of us will get past the embarrassment, and he needs to be more careful. He can’t afford to get caught doing something so reckless.

I need to get focused on my writing. So much has already happened since I left Westbury. It’s clear much of it will get lost, just float away out of reach, unless I write things down. Since I lugged a laptop along for this ride, I might as well make use of it while the sea and time pass by six stories below me. I promise I’ll get on it tomorrow.

For now, for his own safety, I need to confront Eric when I have the opportunity

[Installment 22]

Chapter Eight Here There Be Jinn

MANILA, Republic of the Philippines, July 6

The mood on board is upbeat as tugs guide us into our berth at the International Container Terminal in Manila’s North Harbor. Manila is home for many of the sailors and the captain has declared a twenty-four-hour shore leave for passengers and crew alike. The second officer will remain with the ship, supervising cargo operations and monitoring the weather. There’s a typhoon brewing in the Philippine Sea, which could pass north of Manila over the Luzon Strait and the sparsely populated Babuyan Islands.

“They won’t notice much difference in Babuyan,” the second officer jokes. “The wind blows there all the time.”

Our captain wants to make for Haiphong and be well clear of Manila before the winds become a problem in a day or two. The typhoon may not do much damage to the Philippines, but it’s tracking toward China and may pass over Taiwan before bearing down on Macao and Hong Kong.

Typhoon aside, there’s the other unpleasant business Eric must transact—dealing with the port police in the matter of the Agarwals.

Shun draws me aside at the gangplank and asks about the death of Mrs. Agarwal, which is now common knowledge aboard the Andaman Pearl despite the captain’s edict. Shun and Shantrelle were sleeping in when they woke to the commotion from the Agarwals’ cabin next door to theirs. Shun says he was poised to intervene, but the noise stopped when Mrs. Agarwal left the cabin.  

I tell him as much as I think appropriate under the circumstances. No need to charge headlong into a minefield. Shun thanks me and says he and Shantrelle will pray for them.

I tell Eric I’ll make myself available to the authorities if he thinks it might help. I made some encrypted notes in my laptop about my role in the incident, although I told no one about them. Just a matter of habit, I suppose. Physicians are compulsive documenters.

Eric doubts he’ll need me. In fact, he says it might be better if I were not readily accessible to the port police. An attorney from Andaman World Marine will accompany him to advise and keep the authorities from veering off course.

We passengers have been told not to venture too far away from the ship as we lark about Manila and to keep our cell phones at the ready. Conditions could change rapidly, and the captain doesn’t want to get trapped in port. If we get a call from the ship, we’re to scare up the nearest jeepney and make a beeline back.

I’m planning a brief tour of the Quiapo district at Eric’s suggestion, if for no other reason than to get my feet back on land. I’ll not say dry land because it’s the monsoon season and everything is soaked. But we have a window of sunshine and blue sky this morning before the expected afternoon downpour returns.

Yongzheng Shun and Shantrelle Lewes-Haley plan to spend their day living like native Filipinos, haunting the SM Mall of Asia. They invited me to tag along, but I’m afraid I’d feel like a fifth wheel. Shantrelle loves to shop, and Shun seems to be made of money. He dotes on her. The feeling seems mutual, but who can be sure of anything in love?

My itinerary begins at the Quinta Market and Fishport and includes Quiapo Church, the Intramuros, and whatever catches my fancy around the Old Town. Wherever I walk, a tangle of overhead electrical wires traces intricate patterns against the sea-blue sky.

Eric recommended a visit to the predominately Muslim quarter of Quiapo and the Masjid Al-Dahab or Golden Mosque where he prays when he’s home in Manila. He gave me instruction about how to dress modestly for the mosque (loose-fitting clothing that covers the arms and legs to the wrists and ankles and a headscarf completely covering my hair).

I get into the spirit of the thing and find an open-air boutique in a narrow passageway with gorgeous clothes hanging from rolling racks clogging the sidewalks and spilling into the street. The smell of sandalwood incense mixed with fish fills the air. The shopkeeper fusses over me and recommends a luminous lilac hijab she helps me put on properly.

She also tells me about another shop where I can buy a gift for Eric when I’ve finished visiting the mosque. I want to cheer him up. The Agarwal affair has shaken him.

I’m hungry and aromas from the June-Naireh Restaurant seduce me. I opt for turmeric soup and piaparan a manoc, a traditional dish of wild fowl, coconut, and more turmeric served with a fiery condiment called palapa made from still more turmeric, chiles, garlic, and shredded coconut. If turmeric lives up to its billing as a panacea, I’ll live forever, thanks to this one meal. The piaparan is astonishingly good, a dish tailor made for an icy Coca-Cola.

For dessert, unnecessary but irresistible, I savor a palitaw, a flat cake made from glutinous rice and ube, the intensely purple Philippine sweet potato, coated with grated coconut. The cook on the Andaman Pearl is no slouch, but he would simmer with jealousy over this meal.

Lunch finished, I visit the Golden Mosque, an imposing but approachable building spacious enough for over 20,000 worshippers. I reflect on Eric’s ability to calm Mrs. Agarwal's terror as he struggled to save her life. In the serenity of the Golden Mosque, I close my eyes and breathe my version of a prayer for Mrs. Agarwal and Eric. I’m not a religious person, but that surely won’t matter. I can’t bring myself to follow Shun’s example and include Mr. Agarwal’s soul in the package.

The day is wearing on, and I want to shop for Eric while the weather is still good. I locate the gift shop the clothing shopkeeper recommended. It smells of sandalwood, mint, and rosewater—a delectable combination. The store’s proprietor is eager to help me find the perfect gift.

“I’d like something for the medical officer on my ship,” I tell him. “He couldn’t come ashore, but he prays at the Masjid Al-Dahab when he’s in Manila."

“May I propose a perfect sunnah box filled with useful objects a medical officer will require when at sea?” he asks. He hands me a stunning, burnished black box with a hinged cover and meticulously dovetailed joinery. And suggests things to fill it.

“He will need Ajwa dates from Madina to keep him safe on his voyages," the proprietor says, placing them in the box. "The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘If somebody takes seven Ajwa dates in the morning, neither magic nor poison will hurt him that day.’

“He must have black seed oil—a cure for every disease—tooth powder, a comb, and oil scented with oud for his beard, for the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, frequently applied lotion and combed his beard."

The oud smells wonderful. Very masculine—woody and slightly sweet with a smoky finish. Look out, junior deck officer.

“Since the medical officer must surely be required to counter the evil eye, jinn possession, or black magic, he will require Ruqyah potions—powdered Sidr leaf, to weaken jinn and cleanse the residue of evil eye and black magic from the body, and Costus tincture to purify the blood and exorcise recalcitrant jinn. For the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Allah, the bearer of greatness and majesty, has created for each illness its remedy. So cure yourself.’

“I will make the medical officer a gift of this book of plans and instructions from the Quran and sunnah for treating these maladies. And you may add these prayer beads and this crimson travel prayer mat in a pouch with its own compass to find qiblah toward the sacred Kaaba in Mecca, if you wish.”

The proprietor has charmed me. I buy everything he recommends and am impressed he can fit it all into the elegant box. Eric will be pleased, perhaps amused, especially when I tell him how the proprietor has helped me select items he believes a Muslim medical officer requires in the middle of the ocean.

As the proprietor wraps the box carefully with brown paper and jute twine, my curiosity gets the better of me.

“I haven’t heard the medical officer speak of jinn. What can you tell me about them?”

He becomes silent, then after a moment says, “Come. I am pleased to offer you tea.”

He turns the sign in the window around, closing his business, and beckons me into a room, drawing aside a saffron curtain that separates his living space from the shop. A stunning arabesque table, black wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl, rests on the medallion of a large Mashad carpet in the center of the room. He removes his shoes before entering, and I follow suit.

He speaks some phrase as he enters, unintelligible to me, so soft as to be almost inaudible. A young woman, barefoot, dressed in a magenta malong with a deep red growing fern pattern, enters the room from the opposite end, carrying a silver tray with two silver filigree-covered glasses of steaming mint tea.

“My wife, Suyen, welcomes you to our home,” the proprietor says. “I am Hamza Baraquilla.”

“Jessamyn Quilter,” I say. “I’m honored you have invited me here.”

“Please sit,” Hamza says, gesturing toward one of the two cushions at the table. He takes the cushion opposite me, and Suyen places the tea before us.

Hamza holds his tea in both hands and blows on the scalding liquid before taking a sip and replacing the glass on the table.

“I will tell you about the jinn,” he says as Suyen leaves the room.

“Allah, the merciful, the compassionate, created the angels, the jinn, and men for no other purpose than to worship him. Angels, He created from light. Jinn, He created from the smokeless flame of fire, and men from dried clay of black smooth mud.

“There are three kinds of jinn. Elifret, the jinn used by sorcerers and witches, can move things, even from one country to another. Alkhabal terrorize people by stealing their possessions in front of their very eyes and cause illness like seizures and epilepsy. Ghilan are jinn that take the form of other animals like donkeys or cats.

“Cats are most vexatious. If they are not jinn, cats are halal and may enter the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. They are beloved of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who kept a cat named Muezza, of whom he was fond. It is said that one day he discovered the cat sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than disturb the sleeping cat, he took scissors and cut the sleeve from his garment.

“Some cats though are not cats at all but jinn. If you are afraid when you see a cat or try to scare it and it does not run, it is most assuredly a jinni and not a cat. If you are not ill, and your ears whistle or you smell fire when you see a cat, a jinni and not a cat stands before you.”

I nod my understanding as Hamza continues to school me on the dangers posed by jinn and the importance of exorcising them.

“Reciting certain surahs of the Quran will cause jinn to flee, but it is also important to take precautions not to attract them,” he says.

“When you undress or change your clothes, you must say the Bismillah, ‘In the name of Allah, the merciful the compassionate,’ so a jinni doesn’t see your nakedness. Do not stand in front of a mirror naked since a jinni might fall in love with you and become part of you.

“There is more, but in all cases, reciting the ayahs or surahs from the Holy Book will keep the jinn from harming you. Jinn will be answerable before Allah as will all men.

“Do you have other questions?” Hamza asks as my cell phone chirps in my pocket.

“Ah.” Hamza smiles, hearing the sound. “The demon we invite to dwell among us and to whom we are perpetually in thrall.”

“Forgive me,” I say. “It’s the second officer.”

“I’m afraid we need you, Jessamyn,” Eric says. “The authorities insist upon interviewing you before they will complete their business with us.”

“I apologize for the intrusion, Mr. Baraquilla. Unfortunately I must return to the ship. Thank you for your guidance in making selections for the second officer’s gift. He will be pleased. My thanks to you and your wife for your hospitality and enlightenment.”

“The pleasure has been mine, Jessamyn Quilter. Allah hafiz.”

I step into my shoes as I leave Mr. Baraquilla’s hospitality, corral a jeepney and text OMW. Eric waits for me at the gangplank when I arrive.

“Sorry to cut your shore leave short, Jessamyn. Let me fill you in.” We talk as we take the elevator to the conference room on G deck.

“Officers from the port police and an attorney from Andaman World Marine are waiting for us. I have told them my story and they wish to hear yours, although I assured them that as person in charge of medical care, I bear complete responsibility for the care of the unfortunate Mrs. Agarwal.”

“And what do they want from me?”

[Installment 23]

Chapter Eight Here There Be Jinn (Continued)

“I’m not clear so I’ll let them speak for themselves.”

When we enter the room, two men are seated at the conference table. Eric pulls out a chair for me next to his.

"Jessamyn Quilter, gentlemen,” I say. “How may I be of service to you?”

“Hello, Dr. Quilter. My name is Florencio Goles. I’m the attorney representing the ship and Andaman World Marine in this matter. Thank you for agreeing to meet with us.”

“And I am Officer Hector Santiago of the Philippine Ports Authority Port Police.”

“Let me summarize for you what we understand about this situation and why we are here,” Mr. Goles says. “The body of Chana Agarwal, deceased wife of Balwinder Agarwal, rests in the ship’s sick bay awaiting final disposition.

“Mr. Agarwal is detained belowdecks in the brig because he battered Mrs. Agarwal on the high seas en route to Manila from Yokohama. He is not under arrest because a ship's officers do not have the power of arrest, but they may legally detain anyone who presents a threat.

“Second Officer Eric Reyes, as person in charge of medical care for the Andaman Pearl, treated Mrs. Agarwal for injuries Mr. Agarwal acknowledges he inflicted. Mrs. Agarwal died while the ship was in international waters, and we contend that Mr. Agarwal caused her death, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Are we all agreed about these facts and circumstances?”

Everyone nods agreement.

“Andaman World Marine will not permit Mr. Agarwal further passage on the MV Andaman Pearl,” Mr. Goles continues. “We propose that the port police take Mr. Agarwal into custody and remove him from our ship.”

“Dr. Quilter. Were you also responsible for providing medical care to Mrs. Agarwal?” Officer Santiago asks.

“I was not. As a woman, I offered to chaperone Second Officer Reyes to make Mrs. Agarwal more comfortable. Since Mrs. Agarwal was a Muslim woman, she had concerns about a male medical officer examining her. Second Officer Reyes, himself a Muslim, assured Mrs. Agarwal that Islam permits men to treat women if they are the best qualified person available.”

“Why did you not provide care yourself as a physician with more extensive medical knowledge than Mr. Reyes?”

“While I am indeed a physician, I am only a passenger on this ship, like the Agarwals. Eric Reyes is the Andaman Pearl’s medical officer. I have complete confidence in his ability.”

“Do you think Mr. Agarwal caused the death of his wife?”

“I do.”

“Why is that?”

“When I encountered Mrs. Agarwal during my morning walk on deck and saw that she fainted, I went to assist her. I immediately noticed she had injuries to her face and eyes. When I asked her what happened, she told me her husband had ‘corrected’ her. When Mr. Agarwal observed the second officer’s efforts to treat his wife, he sought to interfere but crew prevented him. He became belligerent and told us that Mrs. Agarwal had been disobedient. He said he beat her and asserted his right to do so.”

“And do you think this beating caused his wife’s death?”

“I agree with the determination of the second officer, although as a passenger, it’s not my prerogative to agree or disagree with the person in charge of medical care. In my experience as a physician, the next step is typically an autopsy to determine the cause of death.”

“Do you have evidence that Mr. Agarwal intended to kill Mrs. Agarwal?”

“I do not.”

“Do you believe you might have saved Mrs. Agarwal’s life, something Second Officer Reyes could not do?”

“Most assuredly not. Second Officer Reyes did everything anyone might have done on Mrs. Agarwal’s behalf. I believe her husband inflicted so much damage nobody could have saved her life.”

“Thank you for your observations and cooperation, Dr. Quilter,” Officer Santiago says.

“Are we satisfied the next step is now to transfer Mrs. Agarwal’s body to a medical facility for autopsy, if appropriate?” Attorney Goles asks.

“I am satisfied,” Officer Santiago says. “We have transport standing by, and we will work with Second Officer Reyes to complete the required documentation. As for Mr. Agarwal, we will remove him from the ship and prepare charges for referral to the prosecutor.”

Eric and the attorney for Andaman World Marine escort me back to my cabin. Nobody asks about the package I carry.

“What do you think will happen to Mr. Agarwal?” I ask Mr. Goles.

“It is difficult to say, but I imagine the ports authority will question him and deny him entry into the country. I find it hard to believe that anyone will want to try him in the Philippines for an alleged wrongful death that occurred on the high seas. It will be much less complicated for the government of the Philippines simply to deny him entry into the country and deport him.

“What might happen with Mrs. Agarwal’s body, I can’t guess. It is possible the government will repatriate it in the custody of Mr. Agarwal, depending upon the findings at autopsy. If there is to be an autopsy, which I doubt.”

I’m furious. “Why would there not be an autopsy?”

“Nobody familiar with this case alleges any crime was committed in the Philippines, although Mr. Agarwal confessed he beat his wife aboard this Philippines-flagged vessel. Since there are significant questions concerning jurisdiction, it is possible the prosecutor will decline on procedural grounds to act upon the charges proposed by the port police.

“It depends upon who wants to make what point. There might be delays, but it is possible Mr. and Mrs. Agarwal will both be back in India before the Andaman Pearl resumes her journey.”

“Do you mean Mr. Agarwal can kill his spouse and escape without consequences?” Eric asks.

“Yes,” Mr. Goles says.

Eric shakes his head. “How would it be possible to live with yourself, knowing you have taken a life. Something not yours to take.”

I feel a chill march down my spine.

[Installment 24]

Chapter 9 Embarrassment


The day is catching up to me. The interview with the port police and my sojourn in Old Town Manila has worn me out. I remove my shoes and prop myself up in bed. I try to escape into The Scurrilous Heiress, a paperback I found in the ship’s small library, but I soon doze off.

A short time later, the sounds of a piano being tuned wake me. I know there’s a piano in the saloon next to my cabin. The second officer told us about it, and I noticed it when we first gathered there for our initial orientation to the ship. I didn’t see the instrument itself since a fitted cover emblazoned with the Bösendorfer logo hid it, but I remember thinking money must have been no object if the owners outfitted the saloon with a piano of that stature.

I know a little something about Bösendorfers. My aunt Gwendolyn, a concert pianist on the faculty of the old Boston Conservatory, had a matching pair nested nose-to-tail like an enormous Yin and Yang in her drawing room where she gave private lessons.

Each was nine and a half feet long and cost Uncle George more than half a million dollars. Instead of the usual eighty-eight keys, Aunty G’s Bösendorfer Imperials had ninety-seven. When she played the lowest note, I could feel the individual vibrations as I watched the string dance.

I resolve to inspect the piano next door once it’s been tuned. But why, I wonder, are they tuning this piano now? The answer should have been obvious—the captain’s daughter will need to practice.

Someone slid an envelope under my door while I dozed, containing an engraved invitation from Captain Bayani.

The Master of the MV Andaman Pearl

Requests Your Presence at a Recital

Presented by His Daughter

Miss Lovely Diwata Aquinas y Bayani

4:00 p.m., July 8

In the Saloon, Owners Deck

Reception to Follow

I take a quick shower and find some clean clothes. I smile as I realize I’ve done nothing to discourage any lurking jinn since I’m standing nude in front of a full-length mirror. As I dress, I look at the still-wrapped gift I bought for Eric on the coffee table. I’m wondering when a good time might be to give it to him as Eric taps on my door.

“Eric. Come in. How are you holding up?”

He produces a bottle of Screw Kappa Napa from behind his back. I wonder how he’s found SKN so far away from the Sonoma County wine country and what a devout Muslim like Eric is doing with a bottle of wine.

“Glad to be free of the business of the afternoon,” he says. “I thought you might appreciate a glass of merlot.”

“Fantastic. Sorry about the mess.” I wave at the rumpled bed. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll get some glasses.” 

We sit on the couch and toast each other. “The package is for you. Go ahead, open it.”

He’s nonplussed. “I don’t know what to say. It is beautiful and most unexpected.”

As the first glass of wine is followed by a second, I tell him about the shopkeeper who helped me select gifts especially useful for a Muslim medical officer beset by supernatural perils at sea. I recount how he closed his shop and served me tea as he explained the intricacies of jinn, the evil eye, and black magic.

Eric avoids eye contact and his posture stiffens. “We face many dangers, both at sea and in port,” he says. “Some menace our bodies and some our souls.”

Have I been too blithe in my descriptions?

“Eric,” I say after a few moments. “I hope I’ve not offended you with my gift or my stories.”

“No, no,” he says, looking into my eyes. “I am just wondering what you must think about the tales of jinn and the supernatural you heard from Mr. Baraquilla. You are a woman of science, a physician. Many Muslims in my country believe in sorcery. Many non-Muslims as well believe in witchcraft and the battle for men’s souls by supernatural beings.”

In for a penny, in for a pound, I think, swallowing a sip of wine.

“Yes. Many people all over the world believe these things. I do not, but I don’t judge them, and I don’t think I am better than they are.

“But how about you? When I think of orthodox Muslims, you would not be the first person who comes to mind. Here you are, enjoying a glass of wine with me. Some of my Muslim acquaintances in the hospital drank alcohol occasionally, although some felt they shouldn’t.

Eric didn’t flinch.

“I have nothing but respect for you, Eric. You assured poor Mrs. Agarwal that her soul would be safe in your caring hands. Your respect for her beliefs was an integral part of taking care of her.”

“I’m afraid my family would not consider me to be a good Muslim," Eric says, “although my career impresses them. They would have thought I should have stepped aside and insisted a proper doctor take over. I wonder if I did not do so out of arrogance?”

“No, Eric. Your confidence in yourself isn’t misplaced. I told that to the port police, and I will tell you again. As many times as you need to hear it.”

“Still, I must be blunt. Do you think you could have saved her life if I had gotten out of the way?”

“No. If I had thought so I would have pushed you out of the way and dealt with the consequences later.”

Here goes, I think, inviting Eric to fill our glasses again.

“Now that we’re being blunt and bearing our souls to each other, there’s something important I must tell you. And you must promise not to run away from me, or I shall have to dog the door so you can’t escape.”

He smiles weakly.

“Eric, you are so important to this ship, and the ships that will come after her, that I can’t allow you to place yourself in unnecessary danger. That’s why I’m telling you I saw you among the containers with the junior deck officer.”

Eric blanches but doesn’t move. I place my hand on his and wait for a moment.

He says nothing.

“Before we go any further, we both know it’s none of my business who you have sex with. The deck officer seems like a fine choice. Nor was I embarrassed or offended by what I happened upon. But I’m terrified that if anyone sees you, your career will be over in a blinding flash. That would be a tragic loss.”

Eric remains silent. I continue to touch his hand as he summons the courage to speak.

“He is a man,” he says. “It is haram. My family would disown me.”

“I don’t know enough about your religion or any other to weigh in on whether it’s morally wrong for men to have sex with men. I do know a bit about science, however. If you are aroused by men, that’s simply a part of who you are. Right or wrong has nothing to do with it. We both know it’s neurobiology and nothing will change it. What you do about it is another matter.”

“It seems abhorrent,” he says.

Oh, Eric. I wish I could tell you the last straw, the thing that made me decide unequivocally to kill my abusive husband rather than divorce him was that he destroyed a wonderful young man simply because he was gay. DeShawn Livingston trusted my husband. My husband murdered DeShawn’s soul and DeShawn took care of the rest. That’s my definition of abhorrent.

“For what it’s worth, I disagree it’s abhorrent, but you’ll have to decide that for yourself. I know, however, it’s wrong to put yourself, and the junior officer, at such risk. Why didn’t you just go to your cabin or his?”

“That would have been impossible,” Eric says. “People gossip. There’s no privacy on a ship, only discretion. I can’t count on the discretion of everyone on board. There are very few private places on a ship, as you have learned, much to my embarrassment.”

“I’m sorry to have embarrassed you, and I contemplated not telling you because of the pain it might cause you. It would have been much worse though to have said nothing and learn someone else saw you.”

“Understood, Jessamyn. In time, I’m sure I will be grateful. Right now I am just drowning in shame.”

“Right. But if you decide you want to talk further, I’m here for you. And if you decide to snog with that handsome young man, my cabin is at your disposal. I can always find somewhere else to be, and I’ll gladly do so knowing you’ll be safe.”

I propose a toast, and we drink to the soul of Mrs. Agarwal. And I drink in memory of the soul of DeShawn Livingston. We sit in silence, finishing our wine.

“Perhaps I was overcome by black magic or an ill-meaning jinni,” Eric says at last, forcing a smile.

“It hadn’t occurred to me your handsome young deck officer might be a jinni,” I say, returning his smile and squeezing his forearm. “I know how to sort jinn from cats, but Hamza Baraquilla didn’t teach me about deck officers. Happily you now have all the materials you need in your sunnah box to deal with evil from whatever quarter.”

“I think,” he says, growing pensive again, "evil is more complicated than that.”

I nod in agreement. The captain speaks over the PA. “Second officer to the bridge. Second officer to the bridge.”

I let go of Eric’s arm.

“It looks like we are ready to sail,” he says. “The captain is at the helm.”

“How long before we reach our next port?” I ask.

“Ordinarily we would plan two long days to Haiphong. But we’re sailing well to the south of our usual heading rather than straight across the West Philippine Sea, which the Chinese arrogantly call the South China Sea, to stay out of the way of the typhoon. It may take an additional day or so.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to sail with the threat of a storm that size?” I ask. “Why not just stay in port until things blow over?”

“The consequences of staying in port when we could be sailing are onerous. Not only does Andaman World Marine lose money, but the people expecting these containers lose money and storage charges build up for containers in other ports waiting to be picked up.

“They build ships our size to navigate heavy seas. We wouldn’t ever challenge a typhoon like Kaala head-on, but we can stay out of her way. Our voyage might get a little rough but don’t worry, I’m sure the captain wants smooth seas for the recital tomorrow afternoon and will pick a cautious path.”

“I’m confident you and the captain will get us there in one piece. Take care of yourself, Eric. We need you safe to take care of us.”

I fumble in my nightstand drawer on my way to the door to see Eric out.

“Here. Have a couple of these ginger lozenges. They’re great for exorcising merlot breath.”

(To Be Continued)