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.”

[Installment 25]

Chapter 10 The Captain’s Daughter


The Andaman Pearl left Manila harbor just after sundown yesterday, the ocean smooth outside my porthole, no sign of any trouble brewing. Still, I slept fitfully last night, the wretched business with the Agarwals and the difficult conversation with Eric still very much on my mind. 

I awoke around two in the morning and wrote in my laptop journal, in part to exorcise my own demons, and in part just to update my notes about what had happened. When I went back to bed an hour later, I slept deeply, without dreams.

I wake again to leaden skies. Yesterday’s sunlight no longer bounces off the surface of the slate-blue sea. I shower, dress, and go to the officers’ mess to get some breakfast to bring back to my room.

After reading in bed for a bit, I fall asleep and am awakened a couple of hours later by voices and the sounds of furniture being rearranged in the saloon next door. I get up and dress as appropriately as I can for a recital and reception. Certainly nobody will dress formally, and I couldn’t if I wanted to, given the travel wardrobe limitations I have imposed on myself. What kind of dress would “container ship formal” be, after all?

The messman raps on my door about one o’clock. He says the captain asked him to check on me and let me know the second officer will be pleased to escort me to the recital this afternoon.

I smile inwardly, thinking the second officer would probably prefer to escort the handsome junior deck officer. I had a notion to tease him, to help him relax and lighten up, but he’s dealing with existential issues. Not to respect the depth of his struggle would be cruel. Still, he made that joke about the jinn. A good sign.

At quarter to four, Eric calls for me, resplendent in dress whites, and we walk next door to the saloon. The crew has arranged chairs in semi-circles in front of the burnished ebony Bösendorfer. Next to the piano, cradled in a gleaming silver stand, is a cello enrobed in a rich patina an alchemist might have conjured in the secret recesses of a medieval laboratory, lacquered with burnt umber and melted butter, shot through with candlelight. 

Programs, printed on heavy cream paper, rest on the chairs.

Everyone who can be spared from shipboard duties is front and center in the saloon. Shun and Shantrelle take seats next to Eric and me. They have abandoned their usual shorts and t-shirts in favor of more suitable attire. We chat amicably for a few moments waiting for the recital to begin.

At precisely four o’clock, the captain enters the saloon in his dress whites and positions himself in the Bösendorfer's bentside. The audience settles, chatter evaporating into expectation. 

“Welcome, everyone,” Captain Bayani says. “This afternoon I am the happiest of men, delighted to present my beautiful and talented daughter in recital. This voyage marks an important milestone in her career as a concert musician. It also marks an important passage for me. My only child, my beloved daughter, is leaving the warmth and security of my home for the vagaries of a less indulgent world. This afternoon I am merely her driver, conveying her to a more glamorous life.”

We all laugh.

“But before I surrender her, I require of her one more recital to make up for the many I missed when I have not been in port. Last week marked two other important milestones, her twenty-first birthday and graduation with top honors from university. She assures me she has surpassed the knowledge of all her teachers there,” he says to polite laughter. “I am not at all surprised. 

“She will sail with us as far as Le Havre where she will disembark to study at the Conservatoire National Supérior de Musique et de Danse de Paris. Fortunately for her father, she will be on a full scholarship, but if she were not, I would gladly pawn everything dear to me, except my wife or my cello, to pay her tuition.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the worst part of any concert for the performer is waiting in the wings. So, without further dalliance, I am happy to present my daughter, Miss Lovely Diwata Aquinas y Bayani.”

The captain’s daughter enters the room to enthusiastic applause in six-and-a-half-inch Christian Louboutin platform heels, looking for all the world like a younger Yuja Wang. She wears a floor-length dusty orchid gown with a cascade of sequins, a sweetheart neckline, slit skirt, and three-quarter length sleeves. A large triangular gold talisman on a choker graces her throat, reminding me of the agimat for sale outside the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo. Many believe such amulets to be a source of power and protection. Small wonder she appears so confident.

She acknowledges the applause with a practiced bow and seats herself at the piano, adjusting the height of her artist bench by millimeters. If she feels anything other than total mastery of the moment, it’s undetectable.

She opens with two Scarlatti sonatas, followed by some finger-breaking Chopin. Her technique is impeccable, the music transcendent.

The program hasn’t fully prepared us for the next piece, listing only its title. It is to be a duet. Captain Bayani removes the cello from its stand and seats himself downstage from his daughter, cradling the instrument between his knees, perfecting the intonation.

The captain and his daughter enchant us with Fauré for eight minutes. I wish it could last forever.

They bow to enthusiastic applause, and Lovely places her hand on her father’s shoulder and kisses his cheek. “Let’s see if you can do anything with this old pile of lumber,” he says, handing her the cello.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what my father is too modest to tell you is that he gave me my first music lessons on this precious instrument. I had to stand on a kitchen chair, and he had to steady the instrument for me. You have just seen how accomplished he is.”

There’s more applause for the captain.

Lovely’s Bach suite is entrancing. As the applause dies down, she adjusts the lower strings to the special tuning required for her final piece and takes a deep breath, steeling herself as if anticipating a grueling wizarding match with her instrument. She powers through the speed bumps and potholes of a technically murderous Kodály sonata with determination unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before. It’s perfectly glorious.

The fireworks are over by 5:30. When Lovely finishes, the captain takes his place by her side. “Now you understand, ladies and gentlemen, why I have all but given up playing the cello. Lovely has tried her best to teach me how to do that, but, alas, I am hopeless.”

I’m astonished by how polished this captain is, how improbable this concert has been. I would not have expected to encounter a renaissance man at the helm of a lumbering container ship in the South China Sea. This is the same man I saw for the first time whistling through his fingers, bossing around stevedores on the docks of Yokohama.

“I hope our guests and those of you whose duty schedule permits will enjoy some refreshment,” the captain says. Many of you already know Lovely, and I invite the rest of you to get acquainted. But don’t say anything that will go to her head.” He grins.

“Dad!” she says. “Don’t you have work to do?”

“Alas, yes. I need to get back to the bridge. You all know there is a nasty storm brewing to our northeast. We will avoid the worst of it by swinging farther southwest than normal for our crossing to Haiphong, so don’t worry. Enjoy.”

A sailor rearranges the chairs around the bulkheads while the cook and messman uncover a splendid champagne buffet. Lagac guides Lovely to the table and coaxes a glass into her hand. He’s beaming, and she gives him a peck on the cheek. His demeanor places the assembled sailors on notice: “Mess with Lovely Bayani and you deal with me.” A more effective protector than Lagac would be hard to imagine.

An hour passes quickly. The crew is smitten. Lovely has come of age in the company of some of these men. They cluster about her, reminiscing about memorable times with a small, never shy, bundle of mischievous energy. They toast a glorious future. They adore her.

Lovely exchanges countless affectionate hugs and kisses with her admirers. She and I have made fleeting eye contact several times during the afternoon. At first I wonder if I’m imagining things, but it’s clear after the second or third time that a connection is blossoming between us.

I watch as she fingers the talisman at her neck, receiving her admirers. Her eyes meet mine again and say, “Rescue me.”  

I insinuate myself into the gathering and offer my hand. “Jessamyn Quilter,” I say. “I’m still trying to convince myself your recital was not a mirage. Your playing, your gown, everything about you is incomparably beautiful.”

“Dr. Quilter. I’m so pleased to meet you. My father has spoken of no one else since I came aboard. ‘You must meet Dr. Quilter. You will adore Dr. Quilter,’” she says, laughing. “Lagac says so too and he is always right.”

He grins and rolls his eyes.

“Well,” she says, “you are!”

Is he blushing? How delightful. I catch his eye and smile, making a mental note to work on my flirting skills.

“Adoration is my privilege,” I say, steering Lovely away from the others. “I have experienced few events so exhilarating as your recital.” 

Lagac smiles and hands me a glass of champagne. Our eyes lock and hold a titillating conversation before he nods to the others, intimating it’s time for them to get back to work. The sky is darkening. They disperse but not before filling their plates and glasses again.

By seven o’clock, Lovely and I are alone in the saloon. Lagac has closed the door softly behind him.

[Installment 26]

Chapter 10 The Captain’s Daughter (Continued)

“I seldom find myself at a loss for words, and I hope that won’t be my fate now,” I say, “but I feel like a mindless groupie. I think you might be as much a devotee of Yuja Wang as I am? How do you, and she, manage the pedals in those heels?”

She giggles. “I met her once. She says everyone asks her the same question. She’s just the greatest pianist who ever lived. Well, maybe, besides Khatia Buniatishvili, who’s divine but so serious. Yuja Wang is perfectly glamorous. She could pedal wearing stilts. I think I channel her when I’m playing. Did you notice? I toss my head and throw my arms out, like her, after a particular bravura like the Chopin,” Lovely says, demonstrating. “I can’t seem to stop myself.”

“I hope you don’t try. For all your musical brilliance, the total package just says, ‘Worship me, for I am far greater than you can ever imagine.’”

We laugh together like a couple of schoolgirls. “My dad says I was always a show-off, and he hopes one day I will grow into it. Do you play, Dr. Quilter?”

I tell her about my visits with Aunty G and how she and I would concertize for Uncle George on the million-dollar Bösendorfer twins. No sooner have I told her about “Heart and Soul” than she takes my hand and drags me to the piano. We sit jammed next to each other, each with one buttock off a bench designed for a single bottom.

“I love ‘Heart and Soul,’” she says.

I resist only a little. After all, how can I pass up the opportunity to play with this captivating young woman who I know will one day be as famous as Yuja Wang.

I’m in for a surprise. It doesn’t satisfy her just to play the chords. She turns “Heart and Soul” into a master class on theme and variation. A scene from the movie Amadeus flashes through my mind, the one where Mozart humiliates Salieri in front of the Emperor, transforming a plodding, workmanlike, birthday march into a sparking gem.

“You left me in the dust,” I say.

“No,” she insists. “You are the all-important foundation. Nothing sounds good without a rock-solid foundation, right?  

“You know this racist composition?” she asks, playing the two-finger version of “Chopsticks.” “We’ll call it ‘Flatware’ instead of ‘Chopsticks.’ More PC. Here. I’ll stand behind you because I need more room at the table. You be the knife and spoon playing the theme with two fingers.

“I’ll be the forks. We’ll have ten of them on the table today. Ready, Go.”

We are stupendous. When she runs out of space for her hands in the bass octaves, she reaches around me and plays in the treble octaves. She only leaves me the real estate around middle C. Aunty G would have been both jealous and proud of me.

“You’re not bad at this,” I joke. “Maybe we had more forks on the table than we needed, but the knife and spoon were quintessential implements.”

“The knife and spoon were brilliant, and you can never have too many forks. Come to my cabin with me, Dr. Quilter,” she says, leading me by the hand again. “I need to get out of this gown and these stripper shoes.”

I’m surprised how much I enjoy being bossed around by this child. “Okay. But only if you agree to call me Jessamyn. I’ll be happy to be your lady-in-waiting.”

The sun has set. It’s going on eight o’clock when we walk across the alley from the saloon to her cabin, the one the Agarwals occupied. “Dad says he planned to put me in one of the spare officers’ cabins, but this one became available after some passengers left the ship in Manila. I’m sure this cabin is much nicer.”

This isn’t the time to tell her about the Agarwals, but I’m certain the news will soon escape the moratorium the captain has placed on it. I don’t know what I’ll tell her when it does. But if anyone can exorcise any lingering evil or sorrow in this room, it’s Lovely Diwata Aquinas y Bayani.

She kicks off her shoes and turns her back. “Help me with the zipper?”

She wears no bra and steps out of her dress and peels down her lilac thong with no hint of self-consciousness. I am no stranger to unclothed bodies, but my gaze is not in the least clinical as she hangs up her gown and puts her shoes in the closet. She has a fascinating tattoo at the base of her spine. I’ve seen nothing like it, but I don’t indulge myself and ask.

“I need a shower,” she says, looking over her shoulder. “Will you excuse me for a couple of minutes?”

“Of course. I should get back to my cabin and let you relax. Performing like that is exhausting.”

“Oh, no. I don’t mean that," she says, turning around to face me. She looks disappointed I would even suggest leaving. “Can you stick around? I’ll only be a couple of minutes.”

“Of course. Neither of us is going anywhere without the other anyhow, unless you can walk on water, which somehow, I don’t doubt.”

She smiles and disappears into the head, pausing to put her thong in the hamper. I hear her turn on the shower as I wait in a chair beside her bed.

It’s impossible to take my mind off the fact we’re in the same cabin where Mr. Agarwal beat his wife nearly to death. I’ve not been here before. It’s unnerving. I still can’t fathom how Mrs. Agarwal could believe her husband’s lethal blows were for her own good, that he was “correcting” her. Or how he could believe that either. But abusers are like that, somehow making you feel you deserve being abused.

True to her word, Lovely stays in the shower only a few minutes. She emerges dripping, toweling her hair, her eyes smiling. Facing me, she bends down to dry her feet. Her breasts don’t descend a millimeter. They are about the same size as mine, from the looks of things, neither large nor small, although mine are heading inexorably south. Was my body ever that full of promise, that lush and youthful? 

She puts one foot on the bed to better dry herself. There’s no hair on her vulva or anywhere else on her body so far as I can see, and I can see pretty much everything. She catches me looking and pats her pubis. “Brazilian wax.” She laughs. “Do you like it?”

I do.

“Hurts like hell but worth every second. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait for my pubes to come in. When they did, I couldn’t wait to get rid of them.” Her giggling is infectious. She sounds like a ten-year-old and has about as many boundaries. She seems completely comfortable standing here nude, finishing her shower as if we were sisters or old friends.

“I think you are braver than I am,” I say. It’s all I can think to say. How do you carry on a conversation about pubic grooming with a naked young woman you just met?

Her lithe body is as powerful as it is beautiful. The workout she gives the keyboard every day has been returned in spades to her arms and shoulders. They are solid muscle.

She pulls on a long, loose-fitting pink t-shirt from her closet that comes to mid-thigh. A red lip print on the front, accompanied a slogan in white script reads, “Halikan mo ako. Pilipina ako.

“Kiss me. I’m Filipina,” I guess.

“You get an A+ in Tagalog and performing piano duos.” She smiles. She props herself up on the bed against her pillows.

I ask her if she’s hungry, but the buffet has satisfied us both. No need to make a trip to the mess this evening.

Throughout it all she has not removed the agimat. What makes it so special? I promise myself to ask about it when we get to know each other a little better.

I’m also dying to ask about that tattoo across her lower back. I’ve seen tattoos in that location on some of my patients. The nurses call them “tramp stamps.” Patty Landner has one, albeit not as prominent.

It clearly didn’t come from one of the slick tattoo parlors in Manila. The black line drawing, a little crude, like a gang or prison tattoo, looks like a stick figure of a bird about to take flight.

Lovely grows quiet. Her eyelids droop and she jerks herself awake, apologizing. “I’m sorry, Dr. Quil…uh, Jessamyn. I guess I didn’t realize how tired I am. It’s been so much fun being with you. The entire afternoon was wonderful. I’ll wake up. I want to talk more. I don’t want today to end.”

“You’re beyond tired, Lovely. It’s nearly nine. Here, let’s get you under the covers. We’ve got a lot more ocean to cross before you get off in Le Havre. Plenty of time to talk. You were astonishing this afternoon.”

She’s asleep almost before I finish tucking her in, so childlike lying there, this powerful, gifted young woman who has the world by the throat and will force it to do her bidding if necessary. I bend down, kiss her forehead, and turn out the lights.

Back in my cabin, I step out on my deck. The freedom of my life right now feels intoxicating as I breathe in the warm, humid air. The moon is up, doing its best to light up the water, but insistent clouds remind that the typhoon is out there.

It seems like too much effort to read or write this evening. Instead I’ll savor memories of this incredible day and the indomitable Lovely Bayani. I dog the door, peel off my clothes, wash my face, and tumble into bed. I doubt the dreamcats will come tonight. There’s just no room in my head for them.

I doze off, not worrying too much about Typhoon Kaala, or anything else. I’m right. The dreamcats apparently have business elsewhere. The maneki-neko beckons, keeping watch over my dreamless slumber tonight.

[Installment 27]

Chapter Eleven Typhoon


I haven’t seen Lovely this morning, following her tour de force yesterday. No doubt I’ll run into her sometime later in the day. About noon, I hear her practicing in the saloon. Who would have guessed this jaunt would include world-class live music? 

And who would have thought that musicians of Lovely’s caliber still practice scales religiously? She makes them sound easy, even musical. It secretly delights me when she clips a note and starts swearing. My delight turns to laughter when she slaps the top of the piano and yells something unintelligible in frustration.

I had hoped to run into Lagac today, but he’s undoubtedly busy in the engine room. I admit it. My horny tank is full. Lovely Bayani and Lagac on the same ship? How did that happen? My fantasy life is boiling over.

I try to chase the thought from my mind that neither of them will be interested in a middle-aged woman. Not that I’m unhappy about the way I look. I don’t obsess about the wrinkles encroaching on my eyes, the extra couple of pounds on my tummy, or the increasing downhill slope of my breasts.

Still, I’m certain a jinni won’t fall in love with me when I stand naked in front of a mirror unless he’s a very old jinni. As for Lovely or Lagac, who knows. The voyage is still young.

The captain sent word via the messman earlier this afternoon that the ship’s weather radar shows dicey conditions ahead. Ninoy’s at my door again now. It will be better, he says, if passengers don’t go anywhere on the ship they don’t have to since the winds are picking up.

He checks the “dog” on the door to my outside deck, locking it, sealing the cabin against the sea. He cautions me against opening the door or going outside the accommodation at all until the captain gives the “all clear.” 

“Guests will need to fend for themselves as much as possible for the next day or two since the storm will keep the crew busy,” he says. “Nothing to worry about. Just fair warning. If you get into trouble, call up to the bridge and someone will help.”

I feel the butterflies return. The typhoon seems more real now, more threatening.

“Come on down to the mess while it’s still relatively smooth and pick up some food to tide you over while we’re riding this out,” he says. “The messes will stay open because everyone needs to eat, and the crew is used to getting around in foul weather. If you must leave your cabin, be extra careful in the alleys and on the ladders.

“Don’t forget to secure everything in the head and anything you have on the counters in your galley. We don’t want things flying around your cabin. Until we’re on the other side of the storm, just put everything in your drawers and cabinets. The latches are designed to hold in rough seas.”

He’s serious. This is not going to be the walk in the park I thought when the captain downplayed the seriousness of the storm at the end of Lovely’s recital.

“Oh, and don’t worry about anything,” he says, reading my mind. “The captain is the best officer I’ve ever sailed with. He has everything under control.”

I thank him and pop across the alley to check on Lovely.

“Jessamyn. Come in,” she says with a big smile.

“Just wondering if you need anything. Did the messman give you the ‘batten down the hatches’ drill?”

“Yes. He’s so sweet. Lagac stopped by too. And so did Shun. He and Shantrelle seem like such nice people. They said I can stay with them in their cabin if I get lonely being by myself.”

“Good. You’re welcome in my cabin any time too. Want to go to the mess and pick up some of those goodies the messman thinks we might need while we’re being knocked about our cabins?”

“Sure. I was going to fetch the cello to keep it safe in my cabin, but my dad was way ahead of me.

"No practicing until we reach smoother water," he said. “He’s locked the cello up in his cabin, padded the piano, and bolted it down.”

“Your father thinks of everything. We’re fortunate to be sailing with him.”

The cook and the messman are ready for us when we get to the officers’ mess. They have packed plastic hampers with sandwiches, cheese, fruit, and of course, palitaw—sweet, sticky coconut, sesame seed, sugar-coated rice flour treats.

“Come back for refills any time it’s safe to be in the alleys,” the messman says. “Eat the palitaw right now. Palitaw makes it a party.” He laughs. “Nobody can resist palitaw, they’re so yummy. Here. Take a couple more. No sense trying to save palitaw for later. And don’t worry. We’ll all be fine.”

Lovely and I return to our cabins laden with enough food to last a week. She’s taking the messman at his word, eating palitaw as we go. I wipe some stray sugar from her chin as I walk her to her cabin. I have a quick look around to assure myself she’s secured everything and tell her to let me know if she needs anything. I go to my cabin and settle in for a nap.

When I wake up late afternoon, the world outside my portholes has changed dramatically. It’s much too dark for this time of day.

The West Philippine Sea, or South China Sea, whatever you want to call it, seems pissed off at us and the wind is talking smack. The ocean is treating us like a mosquito crawling on its skin to be slapped at and blown away. It’s throwing twenty-foot waves at the Andaman Pearl, crashing over the tops of containers stacked four high on her bow. Ships lose containers, and perhaps lives, in conditions like these.

I watched the crew going over the container stacks before we left Manila, making sure the lashings were tight. I have faith they understood what they might be up against, making certain the typhoon would pitch none of our containers into the sea.

Captain Bayani had been cautious but did not appear to be worried earlier today. “‘A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.’ That’s what your great President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, and we’ve been through rougher weather than this on the Andaman Pearl.”

The second officer rings me up to check in. He says the weather is much worse elsewhere. To our north, as Typhoon Kaala picks up fury and threatens to turn Hong Kong into an underwater theme park, sustained winds exceed 100 miles per hour. She’s expected to turn even uglier, perhaps with winds over 140 miles per hour, which would qualify her as a Super Typhoon, the worst of the worst.

“Just sit tight in your cabin for a few hours and don’t go outside until things are smoother,” he says. “Call me if you’re in trouble.”

He needn’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. I think about insisting Lovely join me in my cabin until we’re free of the storm, but I decide against it. She’s a big girl who can take care of herself. Besides, her daddy’s driving the ship and he’ll certainly look after her.

My cabin has a few engineering instruments on the wall. I guess the original owners were control freaks who wanted to monitor as much of the ship as possible for themselves. The clinometer confirms what I’m seeing outside. We’re rolling a full forty degrees from flat under the onslaught of these waves. Back and forth. Back and forth again.

I’m stretched out on one of the couches, wedging myself in with pillows. Outside my portholes, the sea slams into the side of the ship. When we roll to starboard, I see torrents flooding the decks and containers. When we roll to port, all I can see is rain and dark sky. For a brief interval in the middle, we’re flat enough to see black, furious water relentlessly attempting to swallow us. It’s raining too heavily now to make out the ship’s bow. The containers sway but seem secure as water sloshes over and around them.

It's beyond me how the cook and messman manage in these conditions. Preparing food is a heroic undertaking with the ship determined to flip over. Frying and boiling are out of the question since it’s impossible to keep liquids from sloshing out of the pots. Still, there’s plenty to eat if, like the men trying to keep the ship upright in the water during the storm, you’re hungry. The thought of having food in my stomach as we roll merrily along is ludicrous. I can’t imagine eating any of the wonderful things the cook and the messman packed for my cabin. Not even my ration of palitaw.

For the most part, I feel okay. Rationally, I know I’m not going to die. But there are intrusive flashes of panic accompanied by the realization of how insignificant I am on this floating metal toy. Alone, savaged by wind and water, we’re unwelcome intruders in Neptune’s realm.

The helplessness I felt in the dreams I once told my shit-for-brains analyst about seems completely rational now. Nothing symbolic here. No petite mort. Just wet, crushing, suffocating, bone-snapping, life-sucking annihilation.

To make things worse, we’ve lost the light. Darkness almost always makes things worse. The panics come more frequently.

Get a grip, Jessamyn. Stop scaring yourself like a child at summer camp. As the captain said, he’s sailed through worse on this ship.

I abandon the couch, take off my clothes, and lurch into the head to get ready for bed. Brushing my teeth with one hand and holding onto the safety bar with the other is manageable, and I get the toothbrush and toothpaste back into a latched drawer when I’ve finished. Peeing is an unwelcome adventure, but there are no serious mishaps.

One benefit of the Owner’s cabin is the California king bed. Plenty of room to roll around without getting thrown out.

I down a Dramamine but decide against a Valium. If the worst happens, I want to be awake. I check the door and assure myself my life jacket is on its assigned hook. I leave a light on in the head and literally fall into bed.

The Dramamine makes me drowsy, and I hold on to the hope that by morning the typhoon will be farther north and we’ll be in smoother water to the south, perhaps a day or so from dry land.

[Installment 28]

Chapter Eleven Typhoon (continued)

I don’t know how long I’ve been dozing when an insistent pounding on my door wakes me up.

“Dr. Quilter, Jessamyn! Are you in there? It’s Lovely Bayani. Dr. Quilter? Please, if you are there, I need to talk with you.”

The pounding continues. My brain fog lifts and I pull on my nightgown. “Lovely? Just a minute, dear. I’m coming.”

Lovely, wearing her “Kiss me” t-shirt, is struggling to maintain her balance in the alley, tears in her eyes, shaking uncontrollably. I grab her hand, pull her into my cabin, and hold on to her while I dog the door. A sudden shift of the ship reminds me we’re still in very rough seas. Lovely slams into me, and both of us nearly fall to the floor.

“Oh. Dr. Quilter. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so scared.”

“Lovely, what’s wrong? Come. Let’s get into bed.” At least we won’t be rolling around on the floor.

“I’m so scared.” She sobs and clutches her talisman with both hands. “We’re going to die, I know it. My mother told me not to come on this ship. Her friend dreamed I would die and go to hell if I came on this trip.”

“We’re just in a patch of rough water, Lovely. Your father’s a superb captain who’s sailed this ship through worse.”

She’s nestled into my shoulder, her hands and feet icy against my body. She’s shaking violently.

“Sh-sh, deep breaths. Sh-sh-sh. Calm down now.” I pull her more tightly into me and stroke her head. “Nobody is going to die or go to hell tonight. We’ll all be just fine.”

The floodgates open, and she drenches my neck with tears. I hold her against me, trying to soothe her as she sobs.

“Here,” I say, offering her a sip from a bottle of water I have stashed in the drawer of my nightstand. The boat pitches hard to starboard and half the bottle drenches her t-shirt.

“I can’t go back to my cabin. I’m afraid to be alone,” she says, sobbing. “There are ghosts in there.”

Can she feel the violence of the Agarwals? I’ll have to tell her as soon as the captain allows it, tomorrow when the weather settles down.

“No problem. You can stay with me. Let’s just call up to the bridge so your father knows you’re here. If he calls or sends someone down to your cabin to check on you, he’ll be sick with worry.”

She nods.

“Let’s take this wet thing off and get you warmed up.” I pull the soaked t-shirt over her head and toss it onto the nightstand.

Before I can tuck her in, she bolts for the head. “I feel sick,” she says, falling to her knees, hugging the toilet. I follow and steady her between my knees, holding her head with one hand, hanging on to a grab bar by the toilet with the other as she retches.

When she finishes, I wash her face, grab one of my t-shirts for her, and give her a ginger lozenge to help with the nausea. I encourage her to swallow a Dramamine I hope will help her sleep, and get her back into bed, propped up against the bulkhead under the covers. I pick up the phone, which thankfully has been secured to one of the nightstands, crawl in beside her, and call the bridge.

“She’s okay,” I tell the captain. “I just wanted you to know she’s with me, so you won’t worry about her.

“No. No bother at all. Yes. I’m fine. We’re both fine. Don’t worry. We’ll see you in the morning, Captain.”

Lovely backs into me. She’s clammy and her teeth are chattering. I feel her heart pounding as I pull her into my body.

I wonder briefly about Shun and Shantrelle, how they’re holding up against this onslaught. I’m sure they’re fine, having gotten the same warnings and gone through the same preparations I did. I picture them hanging onto each other, rolling around together in their bed.

The ship continues to lurch. While I’m less frightened than Lovely, I admit having her next to me is reassuring. I look over at the nightstand, at the maneki-neko, calmly smiling, beckoning. I forgot to move it into a drawer for safekeeping, but it’s unperturbed. Trust a cat to keep its balance when the world’s going bonkers.

I close my eyes and strive to match the rhythm of Lovely’s breathing, her warming body spooning into mine like my deceased husband’s never did. I can’t resist the urge to kiss her temple as I smooth the hair from her face.

Bodies together in bed should be just like this. Treasured, tightly held. Lovely’s already asleep and I’m close.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks, rage, blow.

Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once.

Shakespeare notwithstanding, the chaos outside can’t get in here. Not into my bed.

[Installment 29]

Chapter Twelve Agimat


The morning brings smooth seas and sunlight streaming through the portholes. I untangle myself from Lovely, who doesn’t budge, splash cool water on my face and brush my teeth. I throw a robe over my nightgown and look around the cabin. Miraculously, nothing seems out of place save for a couple of sofa cushions.

I make a pot of Lady Grey tea, leave it on the counter to steep, and return to the bed, sitting in the lounger at the foot. I look at my overnight guest, the previously unflappable young woman who has sought sanctuary in my cabin.

Lovely has kicked off the covers and is lying flat on her stomach, her left knee drawn up slightly, her hands clutching the pillow in which she has buried her face. The t-shirt I gave her last night has ridden up and covers little.

I’m of two minds about the propriety of watching her lying there, but ultimately, I can’t look away. I allow myself to study the tattoo on her lower back. It’s coal black, as if someone used ink made from a raven’s feathers. What I take to be a pair of abstract wings lines the crest of her pelvis, a bold semicircle sprouting six pairs of short, stylized feathers. At the center of the line, a squatty downward-pointing arrow anchors the tattoo over her tailbone, dipping into the crease between her buttocks.

Between the wings, across her spine, three closely spaced black dots march in a horizontal row. It appears the tattoo artist has attempted to place them symmetrically, but they’re slightly off-kilter, imprecise, surging with primitive energy. I could speculate, but in the end, I’ll simply have to ask her about the tattoo.

I fetch a cup of tea and return to the chair. Lovely has rolled over on her back, still sleeping. Her body is a symphony of form and color. Both her shape and coloring put me in mind of Captain Bayani’s exquisite cello.

She is breathtaking. I have seen many bodies in my career, but I have never looked at any of them as I am now looking at Lovely. I’m not perving, but it would be inaccurate to say I feel nothing.

To physicians, bodies are a collection of parts, regions, and problem spots. My husband’s body was never interesting to me. Even Pyotr’s classically sculpted body, or the bodies of other people I have slept with, have not called to me as Lovely’s does. “Drink your fill,” it seems to say.

My better angel says, “Look away.” The one whispering into my other ear has hijacked my eyes.

The more I look, the more aroused I become. I’m conflicted. Am I even allowed to have such feelings for her? Whatever the answer to that question, I want this moment to go on forever.

Alas, it ends all too soon. Lovely stirs, opens her eyes, and stretches, propping up on a pillow.

“Good morning,” I say.

“Jessamyn. Hi. Good morning,” she says, smiling and rubbing her eyes. “My god, we’re still alive, just like you said.”

“Your father is a terrific sailor. I didn’t really doubt he’d pull us through,” I say, taking another sip of tea. The alternative is too scary to contemplate. “Are you hungry? Would you like some tea? Toast?”

“That would be wonderful,” she says.

Lovely uses the head as I fetch a second cup of tea for myself, another cup and a bite of breakfast for her. She makes herself at home in the bed again, not bothering to cover herself with the sheet. The scrunched up t-shirt I gave her last night covers her breasts but nothing else. There’s a profound innocence about her, coupled with a sense she is deliberately being provocative. Can these two things go together?

“Would you like a gown or your own t-shirt?” I offer. “I think it’s probably dry by now.”

“Do you mind if I don’t put my clothes on just yet?” she asks.

Of course, I don’t.

“I have this thing about clothes,” she says, pulling the t-shirt off and tossing it on the bed. “I love to get all pimped out for my recitals or to go clubbing, but the rest of the time, I’m happier not wearing anything unless they would throw me in jail if I didn’t."

“You’re violating no penal code here. How do you feel after all that bouncing around last night?”

“I’m groggy, thanks to your sorcery, but so relieved we’re not dead. The tea will clear my head.

“We can call up to the bridge if you like. Your father might like to hear from you if he’s awake. I imagine they had a rough night while we lazed about here in bed."

Her amusement at my comment is genuine. “Any idea where we are?”

“I’m sure we’re somewhere between the Philippines and Vietnam. We’ll be in Haiphong in a day or two. That’s the beauty about being on a ship. Without having to lift a finger, we just arrive at exotic places, all in good time.”

She catches me staring at the amulet at her throat. “You like the agimat?” she asks, fingering it.

“I’ve been curious about it since the recital. I saw something like it at a vendor’s stand in Quiapo but nothing that exquisite. And speaking of curious, what’s the story with your tattoo. I hope you’ll forgive me for staring at you. I’m just a nosy old woman.”

“I forgive you, nosy old woman. I like that you want to look at me. Your eyes are filled with love. It’s easy for me to see love. Now you’ll have to forgive me. I fall in love all the time, but you mustn’t think I fall in love with just anyone I spend the night in bed with.”

Electricity races up my spine. I don’t know what to make of her declaration.

“I forgive you, although I don’t have the slightest idea for what,” I say. “It just feels like the right thing to do.”

She takes another sip of her tea. “This is a little scary for me,” she says, becoming serious. “I have many secrets.”

I doubt your secrets would hold a candle to mine, child.

“If you really want to know about the agimat and the tattoo, you must understand I am as much a part of them as they are of me.” She pauses. “I think both have been speaking to you. And to me since I met you.”

“Lovely, we have all the time in the world, and I’m very interested, but really, I don’t want to pry.”

“You’re not ‘prying.’ You wouldn’t even have been able to ask if the agimat and the tattoo hadn’t wanted you to know. They’re magical. Still, it is risky. I am forbidden to talk about them, bound by an oath to my ancestors, except to someone they call a ‘thirsty soul,’ a ‘quester.’ They told me I would know such a soul if it came into my presence. It has never happened before. You are the first. I’m certain I am supposed to share my secrets with you.”

“No really, Lovely. It’s none of my business.”

“I think it is your business, but if it isn’t, I’ll know in the telling and I will stop. And you will tell me if you do not want to hear more. We will not think each other rude if that happens, okay? If we become afraid to continue?” she asks.

I expected none of this. I nod and allow Lovely to take the lead.

“My family tree is full of witches, headhunters, and cannibals,” Lovely begins matter-of-factly.

I’m surprised by this revelation but resolve to keep my reactions in check.

[Installment 30]

Chapter Twelve Premeditation (continued)

“The headhunting branch, my father’s ancestors, are from the mountain valleys of the cordillera, the Kalinga province of northern Luzon Island. Officially, headhunting disappeared in the Philippines by 1970.”

“Officially, 1970?”

“Yes, that recently. Officially. But of course, it hasn’t disappeared at all. In the Philippines, officials know very little of what goes on outside the big cities. They don’t want to know either. Young warriors of some of the more remote mountain tribes still take heads.

“My father’s side of the family has its share of witches and sorcerers, as well as headhunters and cannibals, but most of the witches in the family come from my mother’s family. She’s a witch herself, you know.”

Of course, I don’t know. I have learned, though, that whenever I’m slack jawed, it’s best to shut up rather than babble. This seems like a good time to follow my own excellent advice.

“The witches of my mother’s ancestry are Visayan from Siquijor, one of the small islands of the central archipelago. Even today, they call Siquijor ‘Witch Island.’ Tourists go there looking for advice, healing, and sometimes, vengeance.

“When I was an infant, seven days after I was born, my mother took me to Siquijor to see my great-grandmother and her people. Great-grandmother Pilar was a powerful mananambal, a sorceress who could heal spiritual or physical illnesses and counter the spells of black witchcraft.

“She took me to the summit of Mt. Bandila-an on the night of the full moon and held me aloft, a naked squalling infant, to announce my presence to the cosmos, charging the ancestral spirits to protect me from harm and evil.”

All this stuff about witches and cannibals strikes me as a little nutty, but Lovely seems as sincere as Hamza Baraquilla had been when he told me about the jinn.

“Mother says that’s why I want to run around naked all the time. ‘The ancestral spirits clothed you with protection and must have decided that was clothing enough,’ she said. She could never keep clothes on me as a little girl and soon gave up trying. My father just laughed as I ran around bare butt and called me a pill. He was away most of the time, so it really didn’t matter with just mother and me.”

Lovely turned somber.

“There are also mangkukulam in my mother’s family tree, witches who use black magic to harm or even kill someone. Mother says my great-aunt Carmelota was mangkukulam. She had a rice bag with the skull of one of her enemies stuffed with photographs and scraps of paper bearing the names of people she cursed. My grandmother Concepción swears she saw it when she was a little girl.”

Lovely paused as if summoning forth courage to continue her story.

“I got my first period on my eleventh birthday while my father was at sea. Mother summoned Great-grandmother Pilar and Grandmother Concepción to Manila, and the four of us traveled to the village of Buscalan, in the northern Kalinga province, to consult with Great-grandmother Ilyang, herself a powerful sorceress. Her husband, Great-grandfather Banoy, took heads, like his father and grandfather before him. He’s dead now, but the heads he took lived in niches over the entrance to Great-grandmother Ilyang’s hut."

The way Lovely tells the story, it’s almost possible to picture the hut with its grinning skulls.

“We spent the next few weeks in Kalinga. The women schooled me in the ancient ways. We gathered herbs together, and I learned about ceremonies, spirits, and spells. Then my second period arrived.

“The women took me to an old mambabatok, one of the few remaining women who practiced the art of tattooing by tapping a wicked-looking pomelo thorn dipped in ink into my skin.”

Lovely gets out of bed and stands with her back to me.

“The tattoo is the sacred ‘serpent eagle.’ My mother says the mambabatok took an entire morning to complete her work, dipping the thorn into ink made from pine soot and water, tapping it into my skin with a stick, chanting all the while. I do not remember the process, although I am told I cried out every time the thorn pierced me."

I want to trace the tattoo with my fingers as Lovely stands with her back to me, but I hold back.

“Great-grandmother Ilyang cast a spell so I would hallucinate the serpent eagle as the tattooist worked. I saw the eagle in my mind as it took shape, flapping his wings and piercing me with his talons, screaming as the mambabatok went about her work. My cries were not cries of pain, but the screams of eagles.”

All this talk of thorns and talons piercing Lovely’s tender flesh sets my teeth on edge. How could they do that to a child?

“The serpent eagle signifies heavenly guidance and protection, as well as courage. I don’t know for sure, but I think the mambabatok was the National Living Treasure Apo Whang-Od. She signs her work with three dots like the one on my tattoo. She's over a hundred years old now.

“Go ahead,” Lovely says, looking over one shoulder with an impish grin. “You can touch it.”

I can’t resist tracing the outstretched wings along the crest of her pelvis from one side to the other and then tracing the arrow until it dips into the cleft of her bottom. The simple act of touching a fingertip to another’s skin has never felt so electric.

“It makes your fingers tingle, right?” Lovely says. “I can feel it when you touch it too. When I touch it in the shower, my fingers get zapped like the shocks you get shuffling across a carpet. If I touch it in the dark, and my mind is open, I can see them—red and gold flickers like a sparkler, but if I look too hard, they’re not there anymore. Sometimes it’s so intense I lose myself.”

I want to pull my fingers back but I can’t. I’m not imagining the little jolts I’m feeling.

“It’s a good thing they placed the tattoo low enough that it doesn’t interfere with those backless concert gowns I rock,” Lovely says, turning around to face me with a grin. She stands there for a moment, her pubis scant inches from my face. She sweeps a stray lock of my hair from my forehead as I look up into her eyes. I breathe a little easier when she moves back to the bed to continue her story.

“I know I should tell you the complete story,” she says, hanging her head a little. “I’m leaving out one or two things I’ll tell you about later.” 

Is she embarrassed about what she feels, touching the tattoo in the shower? I can guess, of course, what else she is touching, and while I wouldn’t be shocked to hear about it, her childlike reticence is delightful. If you can imagine using the words “reticence” and “Lovely” in the same sentence.

“When other people ask, I tell them it’s a tribal tattoo, and I was only a child when I got it so I don’t know if it means anything or not. I tell them I don’t remember ever not having it. But of course, I do. A few other people have touched it, but I don’t let them feel the sparks, like I let you.”

“You can control that?”

“Yes. Mother says I shouldn’t let anyone touch it, especially boys, because it’s private,” she says, the grin returning to her face.

“What does your father think of all that business with your relatives?” I ask.

“Mother said I didn’t have to show the tattoo to my father or explain anything about the visit to Kalinga, but I don’t like keeping secrets from him. I don’t know how I could hide it anyhow unless I started wearing more clothes. He was happy the women had taken me into their circle and thanked me for telling him.”

‘“They are wise and powerful women,’ he said. ‘They love you immensely, perhaps even as much as I do.’ He promised he would always be in my corner, and he always has been, even when I’ve been a little brat. Nobody loves me more than my father loves me.”

Lovely pauses again, as if contemplating whether she has told me enough. Or perhaps too much. She decides on the former. She hasn’t finished her story yet.

“Before we left Kalinga, while the tattoo was healing, Great-grandmother Ilyang told me the story of Father Ignacio de Jesús and the agimat. Father Ignacio was the last Catholic priest in the northern provinces before the Spanish were driven from the islands in 1898.

“The Spanish never subdued the northern tribes as they did in the south. There, the Catholic church persecuted the mananambal and forced little boys to poop on the remains of indigenous religious symbols the priests destroyed. The tribes in the north didn't trust the priests, but they tolerated them if they behaved themselves. Father Ignacio couldn’t manage that.”

Oh no, I think. Not another priest abuse story.

“He was drunk most of the time and preyed upon the tribal children and adolescents. He raped and murdered a young girl named Diwata, promised in marriage to Datu, the strongest warrior in the tribe.

“Father Ignacio fled for his life, but Datu hunted him down and dragged him back to the village, hobbled hand and foot, a rope around his neck. Then he cut off his head, raised it on a pike in the center of the village, and left his body to the women.”

Lovely leaves no detail unspoken.

“They gutted him, made a stew of his innards for everyone in the tribe to eat, and hacked his body to pieces to feed to the pigs. But first they cut off his pizzle and gave it to Diwata’s mother. She smoked it over a fire and hung it over the doorway of their hut to dry in the sun until it shriveled to the size of a hyacinth bean pod.

“Datu asked Diwata’s mother, a mananambal, and her husband, an accomplished metalsmith, to make an agimat for his next intended wife, also named Diwata.

I stare at the triangular agimat hanging at Lovely’s breasts as she fingers it, continuing her story.

“Diwata’s mother knocked the teeth from the priest’s skull and smashed them to bits. Her husband took the fillings, added them to the metal from the priest's pectoral cross, and made this agimat.

“It’s hollow. Before they sealed it up, she put shards of broken teeth, some sacred herbs, and pieces of the priest’s dried up pizzle inside.

“Her mother placed the agimat around Diwata’s neck, warning her it must only be removed at her death by another mananambal who would choose a worthy successor who must also be named Diwata. The mananambal who removed the agimat when Diwata died was Great-grandmother Ilyang. She passed it on to the next Diwata, me.”

An extraordinary story, I think. I wonder how much of it’s true.

“I’ve never taken it off, nor have I given my father the details. I would tell him if he asked, but I think it would only upset him, good Catholic that he is.”

Lovely lifts the agimat and gives it a shake. “See? It rattles. Priest's teeth and pizzle pieces.” She grins.

She crawls across bed toward me on all fours.

“Here. Have a closer look. Great-grandmother Ilyang warned that anyone who touches it will die instantly if they are not a thirsty soul. Since you are a thirsty soul, you can touch it, no worries.”

I don’t know what to make of all this. Of course I don’t believe in all the witchcraft and hocus-pocus Lovely is regaling me with, but I think she does, at least the essence of it.

While I want to touch the agimat, scrutinize it more closely, the vision of Lovely approaching me on her hands and knees like some exotic cat with a bell around her neck, begging to be petted, is unnerving. She settles on the bed, facing me, her legs hanging off the end, and takes my hand, guiding it to the agimat.

“I’ve never believed it was all that powerful.” She laughs. “Some of my friends have touched it, and nobody has died. But I’ve never told anyone except you the whole story about the tattoo and the agimat.”

I let go of the charm. Letting go of Lovely is proving to be more difficult. But I make the effort.

“I’m starving,” I say. “Let’s go down to the mess and show our faces so everyone knows we’re alive and kicking.”

I fetch Lovely’s now dry t-shirt and hand it to her. “Why don’t you scoot across to your cabin and get dressed. I’ll pick you up there in, say, fifteen minutes? Call your father and check in.”

Lovely screws her face into an exaggerated pout, piling out of the bed. “Well, if you’re enforcing a dress code, I guess I’ll have to be a good girl and behave myself. But I warn you, Dr. Jessamyn Quilter, I’m not through with you. Not by a long shot.”

Lovely switches my t-shirt for hers and gives me a fierce hug. Then, standing on tiptoe, she surprises me with a kiss full on the mouth. I must have flinched.

“Did I just do a bad thing?” she asks, pulling back, her eyes moistening.

“No,” I say. “It was a Lovely thing. Come here.” I draw her close, kissing her forehead. She lifts her face and looks into my eyes, and I’m powerless to resist the urge to kiss her mouth.

“Black magic?” I ask.

“Black magic doesn’t work on innocent people.” She smirks.

I turn her around, march her toward the door, and give her a playful swat on the bottom. “Scoot. See you in fifteen.”

“Okay. Deal,” she says, giggling as she runs out the door, across the alley to her own cabin.

[Installment 31]

Chapter Thirteen War Wounds

HAIPHONG, Vietnam, July 11 

I stand on the deck outside my cabin around noon as we berth in Haiphong Harbor. Captain Bayani has declared a twelve-hour shore leave for passengers and off-duty sailors.

I watch Lovely, Shun, and Shantrelle from my deck as they wait for the gangplank to be lowered. Lovely has become close with Shun and Shantrelle the past couple of days. She speaks about them enthusiastically but has not told them her full story. She says perhaps in time, but she also wants to get to know them better before she reveals too much about herself. I don’t know Shun and Shantrelle well either, but they seem like nice people. We’re just getting started on our voyage. There’s plenty of time to get to know each other better.

Lovely cups her hands to her mouth, shouting up to me. “Jessamyn. Come with?”

I wave and shake my head no. She’d invited me earlier, but I declined. The young people should go have fun. Their innocence will protect them from the hellscape we visited on the Vietnamese. I’m still raw after all these years from the apocalypse that swallowed up my half-brother and countless innocent souls in countries far removed from this port.

Lagac, who’s not on duty now, joins me on my deck, tempting me into going ashore to get a good meal. I’ll bet Lovely has put him up to this, and it’s not working.

“Too bad,” he says. “Haiphong is my favorite city for eating cat.”

Cat? Had I heard him correctly? I had.

“Haiphong has many cat restaurants,” he says. “If you change your mind, just look for the ones that say ‘thit mèo,’ and have pictures of kittens on their awnings or windows.” He seems barely able to contain his mirth.

“My favorite is the Yellow Cat Restaurant. I love to get a platter of their cat ribs, curry, and chopped cat barbecue with sesame. You wrap the juicy meat in greens and dip it in peanut sauce. So many good ways to enjoy cat. I’d ask Lovely to bring some back, but cat carryout isn’t nearly as good as the fresh stuff.”

Lagac is teasing me mercilessly, openly laughing at my discomfort. He seems unable to stop himself, and he’s just warming up.

I play along. Lagac is not without a certain ability to charm me.

“And where do they find these cats, roaming the streets of Haiphong?”

“Oh no. Well, I mean, Fluffy could go missing I suppose, but they raise cats in the countryside for the restaurants. Even better, for a special treat more delicious than cat, come back in the fall. Then you can enjoy rats. They catch them during September and October, after they have fattened themselves all summer in the paddies. Serves them right, stealing all that rice.

I shudder.

‘“Three squeaks’ is a myth though, according to,” he continues without missing a beat.

“ I’m impressed but I know I really shouldn’t ask,” I say. He adopts a faux-serious demeanor although he can’t hide the twinkle in his eyes.

San Zhi Er. Chinese for ‘three squeaks.’ Newborn mouse pups jostling about on your plate in a bed of fragrant leaves. When you pick one up with chopsticks, it's the first squeak. The second, when you dip the poor little thing in soy sauce. The third is when you chomp it down. Three squeaks.” He chortles.

“Seriously, Lagac, do you actually enjoy eating cats and rats?”

“Me? No. I like pig.” He laughs. “I think the cook plans to have a pig roast soon. It's one of my favorite things about sailing on this rusty tub."

He’s still giggling as he hustles away. I have heard rumors about an impending pig roast on the main deck and I’m looking forward to it. If Lagac were to offer to accompany me ashore in Haiphong, I’m certain I would agree. And I would probably try the local delicacies if he dared me to, although I’m happy to hear “three squeaks” wouldn’t be on the menu.

The queasiness I feel about venturing forth in Vietnam has nothing to do with local cuisine. The war still provokes feelings of rage and impotence in me. A much older half-brother I was too young to know well died in combat here.

I have never forgiven the wretched liars who insisted he serve his country in this meat grinder for their own political gain. Even now, from the safe distance of my private deck and decades of history, I feel like an unwitting witness to thirty years of rape and carnage.

I was grateful when the war was over. The slaughter had been appalling. Body counts. Civilian massacres. A naked nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running down the road, screaming in excruciating pain as her skin melted beneath sticky napalm. A little girl just like me. “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?”

No. Vietnam holds no appeal for me. The ghosts of the apocalypse menace as I look shoreward. I turn my back on Haiphong Harbor and retreat to  my cabin.

[Installment 32]

Chapter Thirteen War Wounds (continued)

I spent a good portion of yesterday thinking about my feelings for Lovely and the extraordinary circumstances that threw us together in a terror-filled ordeal two nights ago. I don’t know what to make of her stories of sorceress and cannibal forebears. She has a presence that makes me want to believe she has supernatural powers, which of course is nonsense. I felt the sparks she described when I traced her tattoo with my fingers, faint tingling, but I probably just fell victim to her storytelling. Her body has been sending tingles down my spine for the past couple of days.

I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about her. I don't deny a growing bond with the captain’s daughter. Trying to write about all of this has been fruitless. I sketched her tattoo and her agimat as best I could remember in my fancy journal. I also sketched what I imagine Great-aunt Carmelota’s grisly skull looked like stuffed with photos and slips of paper. Maybe I’ll show them to Lovely sometime.

I'm confused by my sexual feelings for Lovely, although I have long known some women arouse me. While she’s technically an adult, she feels more like a child when I’m around her. I’ll probably deny my impulses for that reason.

I wouldn't label myself bisexual, certainly not the “bull dyke” my disgusting late husband taunted me with, even though I fooled around with a couple of women in my undergraduate years. The first time, with a woman in my college cell biology study group, scared both of us into declaring our mutual straightness and drove us apart, though we had done little more than kiss and grope over our clothes. Not a button or zipper disturbed.

The second time didn’t feel as weird. Elsa Hinterleitner, a beautiful Austrian exchange student, hit on me at a lesbian bar. We had been daring each other to have a drink at the “Alice B.” for a few weeks, assuring ourselves we were righteous heterosexuals. We both had boyfriends we were sleeping with, gossiping about their shortcomings. We averred we had nothing against gay people but acknowledged being curious about what went on inside a lesbian bar.

What went on, we found, was women laughing, dancing, and occasionally kissing and cuddling. Nothing that scandalized or titillated either of us. Well past our third or fourth strawberry margaritas, sitting on adjacent barstools, Elsa reached behind me and rubbed my back.

It felt good, in no way threatening, so I returned the favor. She let her hand wander to my butt. I was too shy to reciprocate, but I didn’t stop her. That, too, felt good. She leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “I think you’re sexy, Ms. Straight Woman. Do you want to dance with me?”

Her smile could have eclipsed the sun and half a dozen of the lesser stars. We fast danced, really cut a rug, as Uncle George used to say, laughing as others laughed with us and egged us on. Then we slow danced, including some furtive kissing, testing the waters. Not kisses of unsullied innocence but of growing ardor.

“Let’s go to your place, or to mine, if you’d rather,” Elsa said. We ended up at hers. More kissing and fumbling. Eventually she said, “To hell with this. Let’s get naked.” She threw off her clothes and helped me follow suit.

It was wonderful. For the first time, I touched a woman’s breasts other than my own or my mother’s. My fingers explored the delicious wetness of her vulva, and hers found mine. She questioned my vagina with soft, increasingly insistent fingers. It thrilled me to follow her lead, answer her probing, since I didn’t have a clue what I should be doing. She was obviously more experienced and planned the seduction well.

It felt different, so much better than when I touched myself. She clung to me as if nothing else in the world mattered.

“Do you like that” she asked? I nodded my head. “Do me,” she said. Our passion built until we were both exhausted, awash with orgasmic energy.

“Do you love me?” she joked after we recovered. “Just asking for a friend.”

I hesitated. We’d only known each other for a couple of months. I found her interesting, and she was pretty, but I’d never imagined having sex with her or any other woman. I was living with Pyotr, having sex with him, and it was confusing to realize sex with her could be incandescent as it occasionally was with him.

But love her? I wasn’t in love with her. No question what we had just been doing together moved us beyond the platonic. I was about ready to tell her I did love her so as not to disappoint her, but she let me off the hook.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Not a fair question. Now, where were we?” We found our place and explored each other’s bodies with our eyes and lips, our hands, and our skin. If there were any other way we could have touched we would have. Eventually we fell asleep in each other’s arms, sated as milk-drunk infants. I felt debauched and innocent at the same time. I don’t think I have ever come as close to bliss as I did that night.

The morning after was awkward. I felt embarrassed. I knew I wasn’t gay. After all, I was having sex with Pyotr. Sex with him was usually pretty good. Different from sex with Elsa, and not as good if I were honest, but still fine. Didn’t that make me straight?

I later understood I couldn’t love Pyotr to the extent of committing my life to him. His addictions made that impossible. But I knew I wasn’t “in love” with Elsa, and later I told her I didn’t love her “in that way.”   

She shrugged it off.

“Too much thinking,” she said. “I’m straight too, complete with a hot sex god for a boyfriend. But it’s one hell of a ride you and I are on, and I think I love you. Not ‘let’s rent a U-Haul, move-in-together-settle-down-and-adopt kids’ love you, but more than just buzz my joy button love you.”

We both laughed, got dressed, and went about our days.

We had sex a few more times over the next week, never as intense as the first time, but still great. I no longer believed I was a four-square, full gospel heterosexual woman. Perhaps I am bi, but bi didn’t exist in those days. Elsa was right. Too much thinking.

“Who cares?” she said, when I brought it up a couple of days later. “We’re having a great time, and nobody’s getting hurt, right? We are having a great time, aren’t we?”

“Yes,” I assured her. “We are.”

“Good,” she said. “Let’s go back to my place. I have something else up my sleeve.”

As usual our clothes came off in a flash, preparation for whatever Elsa had planned. We kissed deeply, something that always inflames me. I tried to guide her hands between my legs, but she resisted, continuing to kiss me as she pushed me down on her bed.

“Lie there and close your eyes,” she purred as she sat between my legs. “Let me recite some poetry I learned just for you.”

Never before or since has anyone plied me with poetry. This was what was up her sleeve? Poetry?

Ode to Anactoria,” Elsa began. “By Sappho, poetess of ancient Lesbos.”

Echoes ring in my ears; a trembling seizes

All my body bathed in soft perspiration;

Pale as grass I grow in my passion’s madness

Like one insensate.

“Touch yourself,” Elsa purred, moving closer. “I want to watch you do it.”

The embarrassment was almost a deal-breaker, but my arousal overcame my reticence. Pyotr asked me to do this once, but I refused. He was easily distracted. So long as I jerked him off, everything was fine.

Elsa was different. She had prime viewing, seated between my outstretched legs, her hands resting lightly on my knees as I lay back on the pillows, eyes closed, and pleasured myself. When I peeked, she was watching me like a hungry hawk watches a rabbit.

“Open your eyes,” she said. “Look at me.” She began masturbating as she watched me touch myself.

“Is this wrong,” I asked her, “for a couple of straight chicks to be lying around diddling themselves like this?”

“Shush,” she said. “Just look into my eyes and stay out of your head.”

I willingly obeyed, became more focused on my own pleasure. She could tell my climax wasn’t far off. She stopped touching herself, watching me intently.

Here recline the nymphs at the hour of twilight

Back in the shadows dim of the cave, their golden

Sea-green eyes half lidded, up to their supple

Waists in water.

Deftly then they girdled their loins with garlands

Linked with leaves luxurious limb and shoulder;

On their breasts they bruised the red blood of roses

Fresh from the garden.

How they laughed, relating at length their ease in

Evading the Satyr.

My breathing became ragged, and I reached for her.

“No,” she said, nudging my hand away. She straightened out on the bed, flat on her stomach between my legs, her hands on my thighs, pushing them farther apart. I felt her warm breath.

“Uh,” I said, “I don’t know.” But the voice she was listening to was not mine. She moved her hands beneath me and lifted my legs, pulling me toward her, her tongue alternating between long, wet licks and rapid flicks, her hands freely exploring my body, kneading my breasts, tantalizing my nipples.

She brought me crashing, crashing, crashing, ever swelling over the edge until, in Sappho’s words, I was “Like one insensate.”

“Next time, you can do me if you like,” she said in a throaty purr as she curled up behind me and gently rocked me to sleep.

Next time, I did. The next time and a few times after that. My inhibitions evaporated. The contrast between my lovemaking with Pyotr and Elsa was striking. I was losing Pyotr to drugs, a force more powerful than sex, and it caused me enormous pain. I grieved for him. I grieved for us both.

I was not interested in replacing him with Elsa, but the sexual drunkenness I felt, the enraptured oblivion I felt with her, was like nothing I had experienced or even imagined. And it was mine, now, for the taking.

She helped me let go of Pyotr and my grief that he was slipping away. She submerged me, drowned me in passion. I didn’t want to come up for air. I didn’t need air. I felt safe with her.

Inevitably, I ended up in a threesome with Elsa and her sex god boyfriend, Amos. She and I had talked about it. He didn’t care or even seem interested. I fucked Amos, but it was more to please Elsa than Amos or me. Just not my type.

After that, Elsa engineered a foursome with Amos and Liam, her ex-boyfriend-with-benefits. Watching the guys go at each other, and the two of them double-teaming Elsa, was hot although I passed on a threesome with the boys. I think she was trying to hook me up with Liam since my relationship with Pyotr was on the skids, but he was more interested in Amos than me.

It was as close as I have come to an orgy, and I have no desire to get closer. The more bodies, the less intimacy. I gave Amos a blowjob because he asked, and just to be polite I fondled Liam briefly, but I don’t think it did anything more for him than it did me. I could connect emotionally with Elsa, but the other two seemed like misplaced baggage.

Within a short time, the fires burning between Elsa and me damped down and burned out. We remained friends and occasionally had sex, but neither of us wanted our couplings to be a forever experience.

I don’t know if I was still in love with Pyotr, if I was ever truly in love with him, when Elsa came into my life. It was hard seeing him sucked into the whirlwind. When he finally left to rendezvous with his destiny in Seattle, my grief was crushing. I coped with it as only I could, by paving it over with a brutal study regimen of textbooks and laboratories. They became my barricade against personal annihilation.

My sex life burrowed underground and didn’t resurface until I met my deceased husband. But sex with him was never like sex with Elsa, or even Pyotr. It was never hot. On a good day, early in our marriage, I could expect lukewarm, although I always had to finish by myself if I thought it was worth the effort. During the last decade, on sex night Wednesdays, I would just close my eyes, lie back, and think of England.

Or murder.

But things are changing now.

I don’t know what it is about the sea, this ship, this voyage, this time in my life, but my lust is rising. I know that’s a healthy, if unsettling, thing.  

While Lovely is a total sexual gift basket, I’m reluctant sample the goodies. I’m old enough to be her mother, and I feel protective of her. I’m not sure the maternal feelings are at all compatible with the sexual feelings so I’m taking it slow—for now.

Lagac is another matter. My fantasies about him come faster and more furious with each passing day, and I’ve gotten off by myself more than once imagining us together. I would never have thought I would have such powerful erotic urges at this time in my life.

Lagac’s fair game. He’s old enough to take care of himself, and I imagine what happens on the high seas stays on the high seas. At the end of the voyage, we’ll probably go our separate ways. Or perhaps not, but I refuse to pour water on smoldering erotic embers. I have no outsized expectations, but everything’s changing. I know there’s more. And I want it.

[Installment 33]

Chapter Fourteen Zero


The next time Lovely Bayani gets naked in my cabin, or perhaps before that, under the right circumstances, I’ll not be responsible for my actions. Do not fault me if I overcome my protective inclinations. Motherly feelings be damned.

In the next breath, I remind myself I talk a good game.

Lovely knocks on the door to my cabin around eight this morning. When I answer, she’s standing in the alley wearing nothing but her agimat. My mother hen persona emerges immediately as I hustle her inside. “Lovely, where are your clothes?”

I head to my closet for an emergency t-shirt and hand it to her.

She just laughs.

“There’s nobody up here but us girls,” she says, slipping it on. “Well, Lagac comes up here sometimes, but he doesn’t count.

“Shun and Shantrelle don’t count either. The three of us were partying in their cabin after we got back to the ship last night, and nobody was wearing any clothes. They’re still in bed, snuggled up like two kitties in a basket—purr, purr, purr. Tell you more about it later, but I thought about you when I woke up a few minutes ago and wanted to say, ‘Hello.’”

Lovely hugs me and kisses my cheek.

“Lagac doesn’t count? Since when?”

“He’s an old family friend. Did you know he’s my godfather? He used to babysit when he and Dad were in port and my parents wanted a night on the town. Since, as you already know, I didn’t wear many clothes at home most of the time, Lagac’s seen everything I have.”

“I gathered from watching you at the recital that you’ve known Lagac for a while.”

“When he babysat, he’d cook my favorite foods, read me stories, and completely spoil me. He’d put extra bubbles in my bath and we’d sing ‘Drunken Sailor’ while I splashed around. You know that song? ‘Shave his belly with a rusty razor … Put him in a longboat ’till he’s sober … Throw him into bed with the captain’s daughter!’ That one always cracked us both up, but Lagac had dozens of ideas for what to do with a drunken sailor. New ones every time.

“We’d sing until we were both hoarse, and he would finally coax me out of the tub. I’d drip dry running around the house, and he’d tuck me into bed. I’d fall asleep as he spun stories and sang to me.”

“But you were just a little girl then. Wouldn’t it be awkward if he ran into you now, dressed in…nothing?”

“You sound like my mom. She used to fuss at me. ‘You’ll embarrass him,’ she said, but I knew it wouldn’t. He and Dad would laugh when she fussed in front of them. Then she’d get mad at them, and they would laugh some more. I was a lost cause.”

I imagine getting Lovely to do anything she didn’t want to do would be a lost cause. Remind me never to try.

“Mom would tease me and tell me Lagac was going to get married some day and have his own children who would wear clothes like good boys and girls, and he wouldn’t have time for me. I’d stomp my feet and tell them I wouldn’t allow it.

“Lagac wouldn’t have it either. He said I was his little girl, and if my parents didn’t watch out, he’d scoop me up and we’d run away to sea together. We’d find pirate treasure and have tea with mermaids. He swore he knew a golden mermaid that ran a unicorn ranch on an island in the middle of the sea, right next to the buried treasure.

“Even as a small child I knew it was just one of his stories, but I wanted to believe it. Sometimes now I close my eyes and for a second I do believe it. Anything’s possible with Lagac. He’s such a love. I think he’d kill anyone who tried to mess with me.”

I could certainly imagine Lagac as Lovely’s godfather, and I was equally certain if anyone tried to harm Lovely he would kill them.

“Does Lagac have a wife and children?”

“Nope. He’s still playing the field, but…” she says, her eyes sparkling with mischief, “he really likes you. I can tell by the way he looks at you. You’re going to like him too. Let me know if you want me to put in a good word for you,” she says, giggling and peeling off the t-shirt, tossing it on my bed. “See ya later, Jessamyn.”

Another quick kiss and she leaves as she came, in a flash, scooting bare butt across the alley to her cabin.
(To Be Continued)

[Installment 34]

Chapter Fourteen Zero (continued)

Scratch what I said about sex with Lovely. The more I talk with her the more I’m sure it would be a bad idea. My motherly feelings toward her are undeniable.

I fell asleep around ten o’clock last night and was vaguely aware of some inebriated giggling and banter in the alley outside my cabin as Lovely, Shantrelle, and Shun returned from Haiphong shortly after midnight and fumbled at the locks, shushing each other. If the idea was to avoid awakening me, they fell short of the mark. But I went right back to sleep.

I had the most vivid dream last night. The rainforest cats, two of them, were back in full fur. A female jaguar emerged from the shadows of the trees. She wasn’t the same jaguar that had previously visited my dreams—she was much smaller, less powerful, agitated as if she were in heat, paying no attention to me.

A second, much larger jaguar followed her. This was the cat I’d seen before—a powerful, muscular male. No question it was him. He fixed me with his gaze for what seemed like an eternity before he jumped in front of the female and tussled with her. She turned around and crouched, her lovely tail swishing from side to side, inviting, and he mounted her, holding her by the scruff of her neck with his teeth.

Their copulation took only a few seconds before she hissed at him, swatting him away. He dismounted and circled her once or twice as she lay there on the ground. Was she inviting him to try again? He mounted her a second time, thrusting for a few seconds before she snarled at him, and he broke off. He circled her as she prepared for him to mount her again. Instead he looked directly at me and growled, “Jessamyn Quilter, you must become accountable.”

The female stood, and the two jaguars melted into the jungle.

I woke up in a cold sweat. The first thing I saw as I opened my eyes was the maneki-neko beckoning me. It took several minutes to equilibrate as I lay in bed, replaying in my mind what I had dreamed, trying to make sense of it until I fell asleep again.

When I woke up this morning around six, we were already under sail. I brewed a pot of Lady Grey tea to enjoy on my deck, savoring the warm ocean breeze before dressing and heading to the officers’ mess for something more substantial.

The second officer told me yesterday we’d leave Haiphong for Phnom Penh about three o’clock in the morning. This leg of our journey will take three and a half days, give or take, and there’ll be no shore leave in Cambodia. Our port time will be only a couple of hours to take on additional cargo. Fine with me. The Cambodian campaign disturbs me only slightly less than the debacle in Vietnam. God only knows what Lagac might suggest I dine on there.

Back in my cabin, the imagery of last night’s dream is still with me, albeit fading as dreams will. Lovely is very much on my mind. And Lagac. Are they related? Lovely? Copulating cats? Lagac? Accountability? Too much thinking as Elsa would have said.

I don’t know what to do about these strong sexual feelings for Lagac. Lovely’s right. He likes me. He’s been flirting with me and his squat, muscular body is playing songs to which I know all the lyrics.

Eric says Lagac has someone in the Philippines, but that’s his concern, not mine. Less chance of getting tangled up. And Lovely confirms he’s not married.

Perhaps because of my burgeoning lust, and the utter erotic poverty of my former married life, I’m thinking more of my pathetic excuse for a husband than I have since he died. I almost said, “since I killed him,” but that phrase still jars me, although I don’t deny it.

I’m not deluding myself. It’s a simple fact that he is dead by my intention, but I can’t draw a straight line from that fact to some politico-religious imperative for suffering, penance, or even justice. If what I did was monstrously wrong, and I sometimes think it must be, I carefully arranged things so society couldn’t hold me accountable. Why should I binge on self-flagellation, destroy myself with shame or fear of retribution? I don’t think this is part of the universe’s grand plan.

The universe’s grand plan is to balance its books. Physically, not morally. It lends us matter and energy for a brief spell, at a time of its choosing, and expects repayment at another time of its choosing. The universe doesn’t care what happens in the interim so long as it gets its property back. It doesn’t even charge interest unless you count the joys and sorrows of living. If there’s some moral arc to this grand plan, it’s not evident to me.

You’ll say I didn’t have to kill him. Perhaps there was some other way, a way more palatable to the powdered judicial wigs, the clerical miters, the mortarboard and gown clerisy, the asshat bourgeoisie, the propeller-beanies of the cud-chewing classes, the various ideological bands of farting cherubs and hell-bent-for-leather blessings of prancing unicorns.

He hurt me, I hurt him back and fixed it so he could never hurt me again. He killed whatever joy I might have had in my life. I killed whatever dubious joy he might have found in causing further misery, torturing me and others. If there’s a moral duty to atone, I delivered him from his. Who will deliver me from mine, since no one knows what I did except me? Where is the rainbow bridge to redemption? How would destroying myself in some public orgy of vengeance and retribution set things to rights? I refuse to adhere blindly to the notion I must be punished, atone, or seek forgiveness.

The jaguar in my dream snarled I must become accountable. Maybe I’ll need to sort this out more fully, or maybe not. It was just a dream. For now, I know my husband needed to die for me to live, and I wasn’t willing to wait helplessly for that to happen. So, you’re wrong. I had to kill him.

While I can tell others he died, and even respond to some level of social curiosity about his death, I’m not so foolish as to reveal my pivotal role. We all have secrets.


It occurs to me that while I have cataloged my deceased husband’s sexual inadequacy and sadistic character with abandon, if not alacrity, I have not revealed his name, although I don’t consider that important except that I’m tiring of referring to him as “dead," or “late,” or “deceased.”

His name was Roderick. Roderick with no middle name, only the middle initial “O.”

He told me he once asked his mother what the “O” stood for. She said she didn’t know. Somehow a clerk mistakenly typed the “O” on his birth certificate, and nobody noticed before everything was signed and sealed.

I joked once that perhaps it was not an “O” but a zero, and someone forgot the “1.” My attempt at binary humor wasn’t entirely lost on him, but he didn’t find it amusing. Little amused him except bullying others.

Perhaps my jest hit closer to home than I intended. In fact, he told me his boyhood chums used to call him “Zero.” As is often the case in the growing-up years, it was a cruel joke at his expense. He was the last one in his urchin pack to grow pubic hair. Zero hair, zero status, zero, zero, zero.

I remember little about our first date, so that also sums to zero. We met in college at Princeton, paired by height at one of those awful mixers for incoming freshmen.

It was painful to attempt a rudimentary social conversation with him. He had no sense of rhythm, so dancing with him was like teaching a broomstick to box. I don’t think either of us had fond memories of that “date.”

The whole time we were in college, we rarely spoke more than a few words to each other in passing. Outside a few shared basic science classes as freshman and sophomores our paths simply didn’t cross.

Pre-med is too demanding for much of a social life, though I did manage to get laid now and again, mostly with Pyotr or Elsa, but typically I fantasized about innominate cock during dates with “Bob,” my “Battery Operated Boyfriend.” When I needed sex, plastic was less of a bother than a pecker.

It surprised me when Roderick asked me to the senior prom. I hadn’t gone out with him since that freshman mixer. I considered turning him down but couldn’t come up with a good reason.

His dancing and conversational skills hadn’t improved in four years. We got drunk. We had sex. He confided it was his first time, something I had already surmised. He seemed pleased with himself. I was happy I was drunk and didn’t have to think about it too much.

I remember sometimes becoming aroused thinking about Pyotr or Elsa while Roderick did me. My orgasm never came cleanly, like river water building speed, spilling over a waterfall. It was messy, like spaghetti sauce sputtering in an overheated pot, spitting onto the stove and the wallpaper. Sex never got better with Roderick. Too much trouble dealing with the emotional splatter.

Sex wasn’t easy for him. Erections were unreliable, turning floppy at inconvenient times. We had underwhelming sex perhaps two or three more times, and during one of them his condom broke and I got pregnant.

In our infinite wisdom, we compounded the problem by getting married. I was leery of getting an abortion, and Roderick thought we might as well have a baby. Marriage was the perfect sidestep.

We were headed to the same university, him as a graduate student in mathematics and me as a medical student. I don’t know to this day why I thought marrying him was even a marginally good idea.

Nevertheless we got married the day after we graduated. A rent-a-reverend from the campus ministry performed a brief ceremony, witnessed by Elsa and Amos. And thus began our life as “man and wife.” Not much of a man, and to be fair, not much of a wife either.

My pregnancy was difficult and ended with a miscarriage. I felt relieved after I got over the initial shock of the loss of the baby. When I told Roderick, he simply shrugged his shoulders and told me it was my fault. Next time, he said, I should take better care of myself.

There would not be a next time. I got my tubes tied and never told him. I told him I was on birth control. He just grunted.

I wonder now why I didn’t simply divorce him after the miscarriage and chalk it all up to a failed experiment. I don’t believe I ever even thought of it as a possibility. The inertia of convenience and the pressures of academics caused us to stay the course and get on with our respective careers.

When we both finished graduate studies four years later at Dartmouth, we began our post-doc and residency, respectively, at U. Mass and Harvard. That out of the way, we moved to Baltimore and a teaching position for Roderick at the University of Maryland and a fellowship for me at Johns Hopkins.

By the time our tenth wedding anniversary rolled around, we were comfortably, if not happily, ensconced in our home and careers in Westbury. Our twentieth wedding anniversary found us in the same rut. Doubtless, nothing would have changed by our thirtieth had I not helped Roderick move along.

What about the fact that you engineered his death, you ask? What about the fact you killed him? You committed murder. Surely he did nothing to deserve that.

There are moments I wish I hadn’t killed him, although I can’t say exactly why. On balance, I’m happier now he’s dead, and that outweighs any regrets I have about killing him. Some might agree with me although many would still not forgive me.

Perhaps my view is colored by my profession. Physicians don’t look at death the same way other humans do, and those who claim otherwise are simply lying. Sure, we dedicate ourselves to keeping people alive in most circumstances, even if they don’t want it and we both think they would be better off dead.

Physicians know better than most that people die all the time. Accidents, wars, drug deals gone sour, hizzoner deciding some wretch’s candle deserves to be snuffed out. Roderick’s in good company among the dead. I don’t think he held any overvalued ideas about the sanctity of life. One can’t hold such an opinion and live with a physician for whom death is an everyday occurrence.

Before physicians can heal they must traffick in death. From the laboratory animals we kill in our undergraduate studies or postgraduate research to the cadavers and dying patients of our medical school years, death is not a horror. It’s an ever-present mentor.

Dying can create a path to greater good. Exitus acta probat, as Ovid wrote. Outcomes justify actions. The end can justify the means. At least some ethicists would agree, not that I care much.

We help our patients along their path to the best of our abilities, whether it’s maneuvering them along a birth canal or removing them from a ventilator. Birth and death are appetizer and dessert on the physician’s menu.

Death completes the process of living, snuffing out the illusion that we can beat the house, that a life is a chance to flip off the cosmos. We fervently hope we can come out on top but know in our marrow the house always wins.

Do I see Roderick’s demise as an example of exitus acta probat?   

Perhaps. And perhaps it doesn’t even matter.

It’s amusing, if not always instructive, to watch ethicists tie themselves in knots over such things. It makes as much sense to me as debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Since there are no angels, who gives a damn about the pin?

“Ethics” are legalistic underwear for naked beliefs. “Values” are the ruffles and ribbons on the knickers.

I killed Roderick. His death is undeniably a good thing. I’m better off, his students are better off, the whole world is better off. Nobody misses him, let alone mourns him. The universe continues to hum unperturbed by his death.

If someone were to convince me Roderick’s death was a loss to anyone, it would devastate me. I would admit the end did not justify the means and attempt to make amends as best I could. Perhaps I would take my own life, or short of that, hand myself over to the authorities for punishment.

As Elsa would have said, “Too much thinking.” All this thinking has made me tired, and I’m not even convinced it matters.

[Installment 35]

Chapter Fifteen About Last Night


Around noon, with the Andaman Pearl making for Phnom Penh, Lovely returns to my cabin to report on her lark in Haiphong last night with Shun and Shantrelle. They found Haiphong boring. No one ate cat, much less rat. They ate pho containing what the server assured them was chicken.

The clubs and karaoke bars rolled up their sidewalks before midnight, so there was nothing to do but come back to the ship. Still, they had plenty of time to drink too much. When they got back to the ship they were, to use a seafaring term, three sheets to the wind.

Lovely ended up in Shun and Shantrelle’s cabin for a nightcap. Clothing no longer seemed useful, and the three of them wound up naked in bed.

“Shantrelle and I undressed each other, teasing Shun, calling him a pussy because he wouldn’t take his clothes off. We ganged up on him and stripped him anyway,” she says. “He was so shy and cute but he loved every minute.”

“Why ever would you do that?” I ask, feigning horror.

“Just for shits and giggles.” She laughs. “Shantrelle says he enjoys being dominated and humiliated. He was groping both of us earlier on the dance floor. Neither of us minded, but she scolded him for being naughty and said we would have to punish him when we got back to the ship.

“She blindfolded him with her bra and pushed him face down to the bed. We took turns berating him for his filthy behavior and spanked his bottom. Then we turned him over, took off the blindfold, tied him up, and ‘made’ him watch while she and I fooled around with each other.

“I’m not really into Shun, but Shantrelle is hot, hot, hot! She kept him tied up and fucked him without letting him touch her, but only after he begged her and promised once again to marry her and give her all his money. I fucked him too because Shantrelle made him beg me, and I didn’t want to disappoint her. She likes to top me, so I play along. Shantrelle bossed Shun around for a little longer, untied one hand and made him jerk off while we laughed at him, then we all settled down in bed, cuddled, and went to sleep.

"They're getting married in a few days, you know”


“They’ve asked my dad to marry them on the ship the day before we dock in Singapore. They’re getting off there and getting married again on dry land, so there’s no question about Shantrelle being his legal wife and heir. He’s totally rich. Oil, gas, that sort of thing besides shipping. He’s so madly in love with her he’d give it all to her, even if she didn’t have sex with him. And she’s head over heels in love with him.”

“Do you think the three of you will indulge in more of these shenanigans between here and Singapore? I confess I’m trying to unsee the images you just planted in my mind.”

Lovely is unimpressed by my poker face. “Probably. Are you jealous? You want to join us?” She giggles but rapidly turns serious. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. It was only a bit of drunken fun. They’re sweet people, but I don’t have any horndog feelings for either of them. Well, maybe Shantrelle a little. But I won’t do it if you don’t want me to.”

I took her head in my hands and kissed her. She melted into me.

“Why ever would you think I wouldn’t want you to have your drunken fun? Or sober fun, for that matter? I want you to do whatever you want. If you and Shantrelle want to ‘force’ Shun to suck your toes, wash out your undies by hand, or any other perverted thing that comes into your sweet little heads, why not? It’s been a long time since I waded into a clusterfuck. I wouldn’t know what to do anymore, and I lost the instruction booklet some time ago.”

Lovely gasps and covers her mouth with her hands, her eyes widening to twice their normal size. She throws herself face down onto my bed, overcome with giggles,

“You don’t think I was young and reckless once? I wasn’t always a staid old-lady doctor, you know.” Neither of us can stop laughing.

At last she sits up. “You really got it on like that when you were younger?”

“I did, although I insist it be a secret between the two of us, and I refuse to give you the details until you’re at least as old as me, by which time you’ll be like me, completely unshockable and I’ll be dead, so it won’t make any difference.

“No fair,” she says, putting on her pouty face.

“I promise to keep your secrets as well, especially the ones about your cannibal past and that priest’s pizzle around your neck. For the record though, I knew you couldn’t play piano and cello like that just because you are talented and have worked your ass off practicing. It has to be the witches and the agimat.”

“You joke, Jessamyn, but sometimes I think it is the witches. Sometimes I see things and hear things others can’t. Like with Shun and Shantrelle. They’re just one person, really. I’ve never been around anybody like that. They’re two halves of the same soul who somehow found each other. How do they even do that? Wasn’t there like some philosopher who talked about that? I could never stay awake in Sister Aloysius’ class.”

“Plato,” I say, remembering back to my encounters with Elsa. She had explained it, between reading Sappho to me and reducing me to a warm, runny mess.

“Zeus made the original humans as a perfect pair of soulmates with four arms, four legs, one head, and two faces. They became arrogant and because he feared their power, he punished them by splitting them, forcing them to search forever for their missing halves.”

“That’s it. They’ve found each other. I just love them. It’s so perfect.”

The phone rang.

“Jessamyn Quilter here.”

“Hello, Dr. Quilter. Captain Bayani.”

“Hello, Captain.”

“Just wondering if perhaps my daughter is with you. I ran into Mr. Yongzheng and Ms. Lewis-Haley in the officers’ mess. They thought perhaps you might have seen her.”

“She’s here. Let me put her on.”

“Hi, Dad.

“I’d love that. When do you think, about one thirty?

“Love you too. See you then. Bye,” she says.

“Dad has some free time and wants to get together and make some music.”

“Mind if I eavesdrop from next door?” I ask.

“You want to sit with us in the saloon while we play?”

“No, No. I don’t want to intrude on your father’s time with you. It’s too precious. I’ll just enjoy myself knowing you’re enjoying yourself. Want to get some lunch?”

“I’m starving. Let’s go.”

I’m not sure I can concentrate on food. Is Lovely teasing me again, trying to seduce me with all that talk about their threesome. When we get to the mess, Lagac is talking with the cook. He looks at the two of us and laughs as we join him.

“Cook has made ratatouille, Filipino style,” he says, emphasizing the first syllable, "but without rat because rat’s not in season.” Lagac loves to laugh at his own attempts at humor. He favors us with the list of ingredients—charred Japanese eggplant, onion and garlic, cucumber, peppers, and tomato. Then the secret ingredients, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and bagoóng—fermented fish and shrimp paste.

“Yumm,” Lovely says, helping herself to the ratatouille and steamed rice. “One of my favorites.”

I grab a bowl, spoon in some rice, and ladle some aromatic vegetable stew on top.

“Easy, Dr Quilter,” Lagac says with a straight face. “It’s a powerful aphrodisiac. Fine for us Filipinos because we’re used to it, but it can drive non-Asians crazy.”

I pull my poker face, hesitating only briefly. Lovely cracks up and Lagac joins in.

“Lagac,” Lovely says. “You’re terrible.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I say, ladling more broth over the rice. “If I become unmanageable, I’m sure one of you will come to my aid. But Lagac, you’d better have seconds. Since your immunity is so high, you might need a testosterone boost."

It’s cook’s turn to crack up, slapping Lagac on the back.

I pile more vegetables into my bowl. And then more. By now, we’re all howling at our collective wit.

The ratatouille truly is excellent.

(to be continued)