she is waiting for me in the water
She is waiting for me in the water.
I’ve been sitting in the bar watching the old men play chess and drinking that translucent rum they have here. The old men are using corks as pieces. Nobody’s ever thought to bring a real chess set this far up the river. The rank of each piece is carved into the top of the cork. I’ve seen how deft they are with their knives. Each man here carries a blade the length of his hand in a leather holster at his hip, all the time, even when he’s making love or sleeping. So I’m told.
They use the knives for everything. Opening beer bottles. Cleaning fish and picking out the smallest bones. Skewering insects from across the room. It’s not as hard as it sounds. The lights from the hotel attract the fattest moths and beetles from miles around. They come bumbling in the door like confused tourists, gleaming black and powdery green, sharp yellow and soft downy grey like the underside of a pigeon, straight into the sights of the men at the bar who are waiting to pick them off.
There’s not much to do around here but work the still, tend the harbour, drink the rum. Play stupid games that you make up on the spot. Get into fights and dunk the losers in the river. There’s one book in town - I’ve read it - it’s called Sweet Josephine and the last third is so gummed up with peppery mould it’s unreadable. I don’t think I’ll ever find out how it ends.
The men go out in the day to fish and beg for work on the few boats that bother to make the passage up here. The women stay home, sweat over pots of acrid stew in muddy kitchens, watch the kids to make sure they don’t put any poison in their mouths. At dusk the men come home and you get half an hour of screaming, each separate hut picking up the threads of yesterday’s argument. Then the men go to the bar. I don’t know where the women go. It’s possible they have a sanctuary somewhere in the jungle.
I haven’t seen it. I used to have a sweetheart in every port but the women here all avoid me. I sleep in a hammock in a little courtyard behind the hotel. There’s almost no breeze anywhere and the humidity squats on your stomach like a cat. From dusk until dawn you hear the monkeys calling to each other in the trees, the cries of nightbirds and the booming of toads. Sometimes I wake to find a column of ants carrying away the drool from the corner of my mouth. I sleep as much as I can.
I stay away from the water.
It’s quiet in the morning, when the men are still in bed and steam is rising off the jungle. Naked children browsing the streets. The town’s single motorbike makes a delivery or two, if it’s not locked up in the shed. I don’t like to get up too early.
That’s when I can hear her singing.
It’s the little Dutchman’s fault I’m here.
Joost. That was his name. An overstuffed North Sea creature with the glass eyes of a halibut, rolling in different directions. Leather patches on the elbows of his horrible worn jacket, too small for his pudgy frame, cuffs stained with a thousand different condiments. Blonde strands pasted to his glossy pink scalp. Pursing his fat wet lips to whistle at girls in the street. Tin flask sloshing with some lethal European spirit made from boiled apricots and beets, reeking of paint and bile, constantly being shoved in your face in what he took for a gesture of friendliness. He caught me at a loss. He was always catching people at losses. He’d made a profession of it.
I don’t remember how I knew him. One of those people who’ve always been around.
On that evening we met for a drink in a little cabaret in Hamburg. The Elephant Room, I think. A favourite of his. On the stage an obese woman was sprawled on a leopard-skin couch, making love to herself, gilt-edged mirrors displaying every crevice. Sailors were hooting like apes and hurling bottles across the room. He invited me into a corner in that conspiratorial way he has when he wants to tell you something utterly trivial and said “I’m going to make a little money.”
I told him I didn’t care. He said I did.
I wish I could remember where we’d met. He was a broken little savage but no worse than a thousand others. I’d like to say I normally kept a better standard of company but the truth was I hadn’t worked in months, hadn’t looked for work, hadn’t even bothered to tramp around the docks in the driving rain begging longshoremen to let me join their ranks. If I had seen a fifty-pound bill in the gutter I might not have stooped to pick it. It all seemed pointless. I knew that any wealth I acquired would drain away, any romance I found would fade, any woman I met would sooner or later become nauseated by the sight of me. I was living in a sailors’ squat at the bottom of a busy street where grey-faced men slouched by the window of the common room all day long, watching the traffic pass, waiting to die. I’d had to pawn my best pair of shoes for rent and the holes in my clothes were starting to line up, channelling the sea breeze right into my skin. I didn’t even have any books left. So when Joost got my number from the pawnbroker’s office I had nothing left to lose. Of course, I still insisted on paying for the drinks.
He said he could use an experienced man like myself. He told me what it paid. It wasn’t bad. Not at all. And he told me what he liked about the job.
‘It’s the combination, you see,” he said. “Heft and intelligence. A mind as sharp as yours embedded in a figure that is just so… so bulky. Entirely devoid of appendages, you know. They can’t control their surroundings. Eyes peering out from smooth blank planes of flesh…”
He coughed, looked discreetly around the room, said nothing more. I acted like I knew what he was talking about. He thought I was a man of the world.
They had me loading crates. At first. Then supervising the loading of the crates, once they’d determined I was competent. I had to wonder about the size of the organisation. I followed Joost to Copenhagen where we picked up a specialist in the aquaculture of salmonids who’d been designing sea cages to withstand the torrents of the Norwegian fjords. He said it was rough work. He had to get out of the country in a hurry. We crammed him in the hold of an old tramp steamer registered in Zanzibar and piled fishing nets over the hatch. He was half stifled when we took him out, smeared with the olive-oil residue that permeated the timbers of the ship, and he said it was the cleanest escape he’d ever had.
We signed him up as seaman second class, to avoid the attentions of the customs men, and packed him off to Suriname for training. That was where we had our transatlantic base. Somebody owned a patch of land outside Paramaribo that was useful for military purposes. I never found out who. It did not escape my attention that everyone we were sending over there had to learn how to use a gun.
Of course I was curious.
I had to recruit dockhands. Stubborn little men in four different ports, all possessed by the lingering idea that it was possible to be paid without working. I had to disabuse them. I am not a naturally aggressive man and cracking the whip did not come easy, but it became an essential component of the job. Joost told me I couldn’t go through the union. He said they charged too much. The union saw it differently and we had a standoff with lead pipes in Antwerp, a brief scuffle that evolved into a knife fight in Le Havre. I met Joost in the Elephant Room at midday and asked him to get me a revolver. I saw that I’d passed some kind of test. His chin wobbled as he nodded and from that point on I was treated as if we shared a bond, as if I’d proven myself reliable in the heat of combat. Gradually my responsibilities increased.
I wasn’t supposed to look in the crates. I arranged for one or two to be accidentally dropped, broken open, the blame pinned on men I wanted to get rid of. I didn’t understand the contents. Plastic tubes, vats of disinfectant. Pallets of stainless-steel scalpels, fresh from the manufacturing plant in East Berlin. Gleaming in the grey light of the harbour. Joost was furious. Of course they’d been contaminated and we had to throw them out.
I went down into the hold sometimes. Listening to the engine hum. The ship, the Estrella De Venus, had been painted bright red so its former owners couldn’t lose it. The captain was a taciturn man who spent his life chasing the winds of the Atlantic, saying nothing in fifteen languages but “Work!”. We got along. I spent a friendly evening with him in a tavern in Gdansk, where we’d got a permit from the Polish authorities to trade our cargo of Valencian oranges for specialised medical equipment, surplus from a small government asylum that had been closed down after a recent round of purges had failed to turn up enough enemies of the state. He did nothing but put away akvavit for seven hours straight. Then he turned to me, sometime around three in the morning and said “You are a decent man, I think.”
I told him I didn’t agree. He laughed and said “Okay, okay.” I couldn’t tell he didn’t believe me. He put down his glass, swaying slightly on his barstool and said “It makes me cry, what they are doing.”
“Some days I think I should tell someone. But then I think, who would believe?”
I told Joost he wasn’t reliable and the next trip out was captained by a bull-necked Scotsman in a knitted sweater without a single cogent thought in his head. He could barely ask for a pilot in any language and his face was constantly ruddy with frustration at his inability to impose his will on the world without the intermediary of words. I didn’t see the first captain again. I felt sympathy for him but I knew what we were doing had to be a crime somewhere in the world, and I didn’t want to lose my job.
Eventually they sent me to the river.
First I went to Suriname, where I galloped through homemade obstacle courses and put in some desultory time on the rifle range while a flat-faced Bavarian barked instructions through a megaphone. The other men on the course were quiet and took it very seriously. Mostly I recall the mosquitos at night in the barracks, and the way the net on the door was never fully closed.
Then we had to get everything transferred to the river boats. I had no idea how they worked, how they balanced in the eternal swirling currents of the delta. Coarse mud clogged up everything, visible as a filthy plume miles out to sea. Black buffalo grazed along the banks. Herons picked their way fastidiously through the knee-deep water, snatching at shrimp among the reeds. The boats were slow and flat and stable and it took a long time to get everything set up the way I liked it, picking people out of the ragged crowds that gathered at the mudflats and putting them to work alongside the Flemish bargemen we’d brought with us.
Finally we set off.
I could not believe the length of the journey. I had crossed an ocean and hardly noticed. Now we had to drag ourselves up the river, fighting against the water at every turn, stopping at every forgettable village and cluster of isolated huts to bargain for a local pilot, our translator arguing interminably in the shadows of underpowered ceiling fans while we slouched against beetle-eaten walls and waited for the whole bleak process to grind to an end.
Sandbars gnawed at our flat hulls. Logjams blocked the path and forced intolerable detours, or days of waiting as we tried to drum up crews to shift them. Caimans lurked in the water, snapping up our lines as we tried to fish. Every new town seemed to have its own inane set of superstitions that we needed to appease. I had only Joost for company and his conversation was limited to the erotic and the morbid, both of which he took an equally childish delight in. I read and reread my meagre supply of books - a history of the kings of Bohemia, a Byzantine chronicle, a scientific textbook on the mechanics of flight, chosen in the vain hope that the inscrutability of their subject matter would sustain my interest across endless perusals - and practised with my gun on the macaws.
And I looked after the cargo. They were letting me see it now. Who was I going to tell? But I’m not a doctor. Even now, having seen the results for myself, having fully acquainted myself with the possibilities inherent in all those curious devices, I couldn’t tell you exactly what they did. What principle they worked on. What all those needles, those clamps and curiously floral metal folds, were connected to. Whose greater design it was they served.
Sometimes the fishermen talked about los encantados.
I didn’t listen.
At the time.
Captain X met us at the dock.
He told us the X stood for Ximenez. He said he was Brazilian. It was absurd. He was platinum blond with flawless cheekbones and eyes like segments of the sky. Ideal skin. I never saw a single mosquito land on him the whole time we were there. He looked about fourteen but when he grabbed my hand the bones shrieked in protest. Muscles like a Turkish wrestler. Had a set of callisthenics he did every morning, squatting silently at the edge of the floating platform, looking out at the glassy surface of the lake. When he stood on his hands the sky and the water changed places. I don’t think he really needed the exercise. And he never knew I was watching.
He went around naked or in tiny black shorts. There were only men at the station. He said he was the doctor’s son.
I didn’t meet the doctor until later.
We had to bring the crates to his studio. At the edge of the flooded forest, backing onto the trees. Pot-bellied palms and banyans, towering above us, daring us to look up, blinding us with the infrequent flicker of sunlight. Each branch of the canopy supporting its own convoluted system of life. Tiny fish thronging in their roots. The water was high that season and the lake didn’t know where to stop. The trees broke it up into a thousand narrow channels, filtering out the less agile forms of life, fertilising the water with their fruit, each fallen seed attracting a hundred gulping mouths. Electric eels glided through the channels, plump and brown as biscuits, kings of their domain.
A space had been cleared in the water behind the doctor’s studio for half a dozen sea cages. Each the size of a man. Tarpaulins laid over the top so we couldn’t see what was inside.
I worked with Captain X to get everything set up. He could heave a whole crate over his shoulder and talk in full sentences while he bore it up, expounding on his personal theories in a situation where most men could just grunt. He told me the doctor was a great man.
“He thinks this whole part of the jungle was once inhabited,” he said. “By educated men. Cities of gold with healing rays and sciences beyond our comprehension. He thinks they were overwhelmed by refugees from Lemuria. If we’re not careful the same thing will happen to us.”
I asked him who his mother was. He shrugged.
At night we played cards in the barracks and some of the men, the locals, told their stories to everyone else. It made Joost nervous. We ate tropical fruit, white and slick and hard to extract from its shell, tasting like sweet butter and nothing at all, and gambled away our handsome salaries in the heavy air of the huts while the stars peeped in through cracks in the wood. We taught the natives games and they let us know what we were in for in the jungle. The midget fish that could swim right up the stream of a man’s urine. The cats that set themselves challenges, sneaking in at the dead of night to disembowel a soldier without waking the woman in his hammock. The eels who paralysed fishermen from thirty yards away and calmly watched them drown. And los encantados.
They came from the river at night. Like many things. Dressed all in white, their hair dark, their eyes darker, singing and dancing, carrying cymbals and guitars. They could make you cry with the beauty of their music.
They wanted children. But if you looked in their eyes, you were theirs forever.
The first time they came up Joost started talking very loudly and rapidly about a girl and a boy he’d had in quick succession behind a covered market in Tangier. We had to beat him with chairs to make him shut up.
There’s not much more to tell at this point. You’ve probably guessed it already.
But I wasn’t the one who set her free.
I think Joost had been planning it for months. I think he had originally meant for me to take the fall. But he couldn’t figure out a way to put it together. So in the end they found him with a crowbar, out behind the doctor’s studio, fiddling with her cage.
The screaming woke me. The thrashing in the lake. Captain X was down there fighting something. But she was slippery. It was practically her defining feature. I got there just in time to watch her wriggle from his grasp, her pink skin too smooth and rubbery to get a handful of. I could barely see her. I played my torch in her direction and caught a glimpse of her lithe shape, her buttocks thrusting above the surface of the water, before she vanished in the trees.
Even then I think I was in love with her. It was only when the singing stopped that I realised how long I’d been hearing it.
They shot Joost. They had no dry ground to bury him in so they weighed him down and sunk him in the lake. The next morning his corpse was tossed across our kitchen table, still wrapped in the sheet of plastic they’d sunk him in. So they took him out and sunk him again. The next night he was back, and too soggy to burn, so they rowed his body out into the forest and hung him from a high branch of a tree. Captain X came to breakfast that morning and gave us a lecture on morale. He said it was time to let us know that we were engaged in a great work. It was going to revitalise mankind. Give us a chance to survive the coming deluge. He said we’d all been carefully vetted for our politics and aside from a few indiscretions we had a very good chance of making it onto the ark. As long as we made no further trouble.
He said he didn’t think it was a problem. Joost was a bad influence and probably a Communist. A resistance fighter. He should have been more carefully scrutinised. His sexual proclivities were unsuitable for a man of his position in the empire to come. But what really bothered Captain X was his lack of self-control. That was the unforgivable crime. He said we all knew temptation but a good example of our race should be able to resist it.
The natives were all put in canoes and told to leave. I missed them. They’d been interesting and useful. Now we were overstaffed. Most of the grunt work had been done and the Captain said he was preparing to elevate those of us with the aptitude to more advanced scientific positions.
I applied. I showed him my books.
He was impressed. He didn’t have many books of his own. He’d never left the station. He said the doctor had taught him to read but he hadn’t had much opportunity to develop the facility. On the shelves of his squalid hut were Clausewitz, Gobineau, Wallace’s book on the Malay Archipelago. We made a few trades.
I wanted to get into the studio.
I said I had experience in surgery. Working on a ship. I said I’d been a doctor’s mate in the Leeward Islands and an apothecary’s boy as a young man in Spain. It was all I could think of. I couldn’t tell him I was an expert in the biology of fish.
I think he was grateful for the company. He would have said yes to anything. He’d never been able to talk to intelligent men. Been introduced to any new ideas. He said he wanted challenges. He was built for them. To combat the men who owned the world. He had a very clear idea who and what they were but he’d never seen anything of the planet he was designed to liberate.
He brought me into the studio and said I could stitch up mutilations and disinfect wounds with the best of them. He faithfully relayed a story I’d made up about taking a bullet out of a man’s arm in New Orleans. I clarified it had been a white man. The doctor nodded his approval.
He was remarkably small. That was the first thing I noticed. Bald and old. Wearing some kind of stained pyjama suit, a dull green military colour, its pockets bristling with tools. Head smeared with liver spots. Tufts of hair and a beaked nose. He reminded me of a composer, glowering at his helpless orchestra, merciless eyes set to ferret out any instrument that skipped a beat, steel baton clutched in his stringy hand. I knew right away I couldn’t lie to him for long.
I asked him to show me his work.
It lay on the operating table. Flies buzzing around it. No way to fend them off. The room was anything but sterile. Its chest was heaving, its long pink snout permanently set into an odd lopsided grin, its eyes like pinpricks in the bulge of its head. Teeth set in even rows. Its back seemed broken, obtusely bent, but he said that was just the natural state of its fin.
He said he was making a replacement. For the one he’d lost.
He showed me its flipper. He’d already begun to carve out crude fingers. He said once he’d rewired the nerves it would have almost a full human range of mobility. While retaining its swift motion through the water. The best of both worlds. He said the last one had taken him almost six months. He called her Elena. He said he’d known a girl back in Berlin called Elena. She’d been a great comfort to him in troubled times. I didn’t like the name. It didn’t seem like something she would have called herself.
He told me he was working on the breasts. He still hadn’t got them quite right. He was thinking about growing them in dishes, independently, and suturing them on. Building them from the animal’s own fat. They could have sonic properties. He thought he had a way to make the tissues grow together. He asked me what I thought about the process.
I said it sounded great.
He said he’d got the idea from the stories. Los encantados. Peasants good for something after all. As soon as he’d set eyes on one in real life he’d known. They were the missing ingredient. The reason for the failure of the plan. The wives of the men who would breed the master race. All he needed was a little bit of work to make them perfect.
He handed me a scalpel.
It lay on the table, its tail stirring, the structure of its body unused to the weight of dry land. I could see the mottled pink and grey of its belly. The beauty of its spine. The folds of its neck and the raw nude texture of its skin. The doctor sniffed and told me to get to work.
You’re wondering how I escaped.
I was in the brig when I heard them slinking from the river. Hauling their torpedo bodies up onto the surface of our home. The floating platforms that were our sanctuary, the only place in all this morass where we could stand on two feet and feel secure. They’d taken care to sabotage the boats. Easy for them with time and patience and stolen chisels to put holes in the underbelly, puncture every avenue of escape. And, slowly, with terrible calm, our huts began to sink.
My cage hung from a tree.
My nose was broken. My right eye bulged from its socket. Three of my fingers would never work again. Even today I still feel there’s something odd and displaced in my chest, a shattered rib that didn’t settle right. I had no chance of fighting Captain X. He could have pulped me with both hands tied behind his back, face contorted into lupine hatred as he danced on my worn bones. He was like a child breaking its doll in a fit of rage. He told me I’d murdered the future. Humanity’s last hope for survival had fallen victim to my squeamishness, my weak-spirited reluctance to confront what had to be done. He promised me the beating was only the beginning of my punishment. He would personally break me. Using techniques inherited from his father. He would display my shattered body as a standard at the head of his legions. As they marched through the rubble of civilisation I would be alive to watch.
I watched him drown.
The sailors barely resisted. Even from my cage the singing was too much to bear. I wanted to follow them down into the water. Let them do whatever they thought necessary. Shape me however they wanted. I think the cruellest part for Captain X was knowing himself rejected as he died. He was just a man with the same desires as other men. He wanted to be loved. But they found his strength, his beauty, his intellect repulsive. They saw that he was only a prototype. Too brittle to succeed on an evolutionary level. Not what they wanted in a husband.
I still had the scalpel in my pocket.
I picked my way free of the cage. It took hours. Night fell. I had to work in the dark. I heard the chirping of insects, the wingbeats of dog-sized bats shouldering their way through the evening sky. The plop and splash of creatures in the water. The sounds of play.
I was starving.
I had no torch. I couldn’t bear the thought of lowering myself into the water.
They had ransacked the studio. Taken the tools. Blunt-headed fish nosed through the scraps of driftwood that were all that remained of the station. The water was deep here and some of the huts had gone all the way to the bottom. I had to let myself fall. Stars illuminated the lake, points of light exactly mapped in its dark surface. I could see constellations. Within the forest it was black. A maze of liquid shadow. Easily navigable by touch and sound. A place where every kind of life could thrive except mine.
The moon was out. I was in pain.
A crate floated by me. Upside-down. Emptied of its contents. The stamps of its passage across the Atlantic still inked on its side. A meaningless litany of harbours. Funchal, Izmir, Port of Spain. All of them leading it here. To this unchartable place where names meant nothing, where direction was impossible to calculate. Where the only relevant factors were water, gravity and song.
I grabbed hold of it.
And I begged for it to lead me out.
Some of the locals found me in the morning. Floating slowly towards the middle of the lake. They said I looked calm. Half-asleep, my eyes closed, my fingers still gripping like death to the edge of the crate.
I know I’m the only survivor.
I should leave this place. Head back to civilisation. Back to Europe. Get a job on a rainy wharf or stoking furnaces in the iron bowels of a ship. Talking to men about books. About ideas. About troop movements and conflicting images of right and wrong.
I could do it. Find a place on a supply boat. Navigate the channels as they join, become thicker, bisect the jungle and make it give way to fields of healthy rice and corn. Vomit their burden into the Atlantic, months of silt and murk disseminating itself into a sea large and clean enough to ignore it. I could forget this ever happened. I’ve seen men forget stranger things.
But she wouldn’t follow me.
I would never hear her sing again.
She doesn’t want to take me against my will. She wants the choice to be mine. She wants me to care for her in the same way she cares for me. But she’ll do everything in her power to persuade me.
I’m only a man like other men. I die if I’m not loved.
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