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July 04, 2022

"Thank You, No. We're Well" 06

By Robert Earle

A fatherless child has been born in San Francisco, while on the other side of the Pacific, Dmitri Karamazov and his nephew Aaron risk their lives helping the Japanese defeat the czar in the Russo-Japanese war.

Part II (continued)

There were no mountains, cows, or bowel-cramping smells of manure-coated strawberries. For weeks Aaron found himself mistaking the ocean for the sky and the sky for the ocean and wondering where either ended, and what would happen to him if he stopped falling. To catch himself he would fasten hard on the task at hand, be it on the mast or in the galley or feeding out lines, occasionally catching fish by pulling them in with his bare hands, one over the other, until he had something in the water directly below where he stood and wasn't strong enough to pull it straight up over the gunwale. Markus then took over, yanking the fish within reach with his right hand, gaffing it with his left, and then pulling it with a great slap onto the deck, glistening and powerful with those inscrutable eyes, no thought in them, ocean-like, endless.

That led to fish steaks better than anything Aaron had ever tasted and multiple claps on the back and moments when all of them ignored the monotony of sailing, its mesmerizing demands and discipline, setting all that aside in exchange for the taste of fresh water and thick slabs of fresh fish, its protein fueling them against a return to the way the winds seemed to breathe them, making them bellows, exhausting their puny lungs as the stars became their nocturnal eyes and the sun became something like their fiery hearts, reappearing again and again, igniting and pushing them on.

The Tiburon was a stout boat, but Aaron doubted any boat was big enough for some of the squalls and storms they rode out, Mitya demanding now this, now that, with no sign that there was a break in the weather anywhere on the globe. The boat would slide down swells and crash, slide and crash. Aaron couldn't believe it didn't smash open one day like an egg.

To say he wasn't afraid wouldn't occur to him; to admit he was afraid wouldn't occur to him either. He was afraid all the time. Something could suddenly whack you on the head. You could slip and fall and nothing you hit on your way down would give an inch. At night in the bunk he would wrap his head in his pillow, but what good did that do? Each stormy leap and roll could be the last; the seas would gush in from all directions; he would dream extinction by water and waken to think about dreaming that and fall asleep and dream it again. He was in love with sailing and hated sailing. He'd never do this again. Raphael was stupid. So was Vlad. That eased things for them. Nothing was easy for Aaron. The day he turned thirteen passed without him knowing it. Sometimes that day they were in the air no matter what Dmitri did with the wheel or ordered with the sails. That was the one thing Dmitri feared the most, being in the air. He wanted to slide, keep his bottom wet, not take an airborne jaunt into a wall of water unyielding as steel.

Often Aaron sat in the wheelhouse wrapped in a blanket listening to Dmitri trying to talk himself out of this oceanic frenzy. He heard the Karamazov story, the Sakhalin story, the Chekhov escape story, the Captain Connors story, the Strawberry Point story, and this story, what they were doing now. Dmitri told these stories in two halves, it seemed to Aaron. When he spoke of being unjustly convicted and punished for killing his father, he spoke like a man to whom none of it had ever happened or really mattered because they broke him. Yes, they did -- they broke him. "I gave up any thought that I could be a fine gentleman," he said, wheeling the ship up into the horrifying waves that towered above the Tiburon's decks. "And this half of me is what remained and what Captain Connors saw when he needed me on that first voyage back. I could do this, and he saw it. I was made for it, why not? First mate washed over, second took his place, what about Mitya as the new number two? I went up those masts; I pumped out bilge. Could anything be worse than Sakhalin? No, sir, my boy, nothing could be worse than Sakhalin. Dante imagined hell, you know who he was? I'll tell you sometime. But the Czar really made it. Sakhalin's hell on earth, not in some book."

Aaron loved to listen to Mitya in a storm because it distracted them both. Mitya philosophized "...like your Uncle Ivan but not like your father. To him it's all God's will. That's his freedom, not mine. Look at me out here -- this is my freedom! I was born for bad weather and didn't know it. Your grandfather was bad weather, that's what he was. Russia is bad weather, that's all it is. Don't turn your back. It comes at you from all sides. Now they want China. What next, the world? These little Japs they call monkeys -- those Jap devils took me in!"

He told Aaron that he, Grushenka and Alexei were on their boat escaping from Sakhalin nine days scanning for help and rescue or a coastline that wasn't Russia. Grushenka was boss; he was lost in disbelief they'd gotten away; Alexei kept praying for their salvation if they died.

"All that praying got to me, and I say, 'Brother, I will throw you overboard if you don't stop.' Grushenka snaps at me, 'Do that and the next to go will be you.' We were still fighting when a Jap whaler took us in and wanted our money, but we had this planned. Alexei pulled out what was supposed to be our purse and gave them all he had, and they said good, two thousand rubles, good, next we'll take you to -- this was the first time I heard his name -- Captain Connors, or what they could say that stood for Captain Connors because believe me, it's not easy trying to talk to a Jap and make out what he's babbling."

They were confined to a closet with a bucket for water and a bucket to piss in -- nothing else came out of them. The Japs didn't want to rape Grushenka; she was too witchy- and awful-looking from the sun and wind that had seared them on their escape. When the crew harpooned a whale and drew it onside, the ship listed, and the air stank like death with blubber being rendered into oil. At a point the rank smell awakened their hunger, but quickly they went back to no hunger at all. It was as though they'd had a gnawing wolf roaming their guts like a forest that finally gave up and skulked off, leaving nothing behind but bones. But they'd experienced this before on Sakhalin, what it's like to digest yourself. First pain, then lightness, then nothing.

When the ship docked in Hakodate, they could hear the rumble of feet and the squeal of block and tackle, but they were the last things on the Japanese whalers' minds. Then finally the door opened on a stocky man in a straw hat backlit with the glory of an angel. "You want out? I'll get you out. But you don't get to America for free."

This was Connors. Connors fished for fugitives, refugees, whomever wanted passage across the Pacific out of Asia's toothy maw -- Chinks, Koreans, Japs, Filipinos, Thais, Javanese, whatever floated his way. "The scum of the east, that's my cream," he'd say. "Your flotsam's my jetsam." Things like that, his cancered lower lip quivering under the pressure of the pipe he never put down. He accepted paper but preferred gold coins, gold jewelry and gold teeth ... or silver, if need be ... or gems, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds but no jade, which was worthless despite its beauty. The fish he caught and stored on floe ice below were just to keep passengers and crew alive, not to sell. He was old, not so healthy, done with fishing. If he cruised Vladivostok, he'd take on caviar, vodka, smoked salmon and fur to sell in Seattle and San Francisco, why not? But his real business was the people bedded down between oilcloth sheets on the decks and down below.

Grushenka gave him another two thousand rubles and a pearl necklace and he squeezed the three of them into a space on deck about four feet wide and five feet long.

"I watched everything," Dmitri told Aaron. "And Grushenka helped me figure it all out -- what you do on a ship like this, and why, and when. Your father, you know how he is. He prayed and thirsted for milk, and it wasn't long before he got some out of a tin and shared it, and there were those, Asians believe it or not, who loved him just because of how he is, the way he would talk, tell Bible stories in that soft voice of his. They didn't understand a word. Didn't care."

Dmitri volunteered to swab, scrub, haul and pull while Grushenka took big needles to torn sails and pushed her way into the galley where she'd chop, mince and stir.

"There were people on board with children to look after and people who didn't know each other or did know each other and didn't like each other, and what we had none of them had, being like one person in three bodies, all of us capable and when the mate was washed into the waves and the second took his place, I took the second's place and made the masts and ropes and coal pile below my home. Connors liked the way I threw the coal deep in the box and tied tight knots and worked the bilge pump when the others would barely touch it. Didn't mind Alexei teaching his lessons, either."

"What lessons?"

"You know the lessons."

Aaron did know them. Why wouldn't he? He could teach them himself, but he preferred the lessons of Dmitri's knotty muscles working the wheel and the chop-chop-chop, slap-slap-slap, boom-boom-boom of the hull soaring and crashing in the storm and the thinning out of the night -- it was as though one long thread were being pulled away making the darkness more and more transparent -- into the yielding dawn, dark gray, light gray, gray brightening with blue and tinged with gold.

So they already knew Mitya when the Tiburon reached Hakodate. There was sake and abalone at the dock and later a party in a guesthouse served by women with chalk white faces and black lacquered hair. One of the women took Aaron by the hand as the other men laughed and led him to a room where she guided him down on a pallet and removed his pants. He lay there staring at her in disbelief as she pulled up her robes and sat on him, rubbing him erect with her wispy black groin and then fitting him into her. She had the same non-expression on her painted face as when she served food and she sang some kind of song, not to him, but to herself, as she conducted their copulation. Where were her eyes looking? He had an urgent, embarrassed need to believe that they weren't looking at him, but they must have been all along because just when it was almost over she slipped off and expertly concluded things with a red silk handkerchief.

The next day they went to a kind of stockade where four Russians, three Koreans, and seven Chinese were waiting for them. Dmitri greeted each and gave them pats on the shoulder and made a little speech. He said Captain Connor had saved him and then willed him his boat and he'd save them, too, but he had some other work to do first and wanted to hear from anyone who knew anything about the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur.

"That's the wrong way to sail if we're to get out of here," one of the Russians objected.

"My way's always the wrong way," Dmitri laughed.

A Chinaman told him the harbor was mined but trading ships went in and out all the time. Port Arthur was desperate for supplies. "You wait and they come lead you in, the same as on the land side, which is how I escaped."

All this went through different languages, or seemed to, ending up in scraps of Russian and pieces of English. Markus whispered some things to Aaron, educating him in what to believe and not to believe. Ilya was the one who knew Chinese.

They left the stockade and went back to the guesthouse. Aaron spent time with another woman, not the one he already loved. She dropped her robe down off her shoulders so that he could see her breasts, but wouldn't let him touch them, and moved her groin so that if he knew what it felt like to kiss a woman, he would have thought she was kissing him down there and everything lasted much longer. He stopped thinking about the first woman and really looked at this one, both her breasts and her eyes.

The impatient travelers in the stockade grew in number to eleven and then sixteen. The Russians were querulous, wanting to leave, while the Orientals crouched and made tea and rice and chattered. They weren't peasants. In fact, they were much better dressed than the Russians, who looked like they had been excavated from a pit somewhere; but they were very mild in their strength and composure, something Mitya told him to always remember and he always did.

One day two Japanese sailors appeared and led Dmitri, Markus and Aaron to a government building with enormous gold and blue doors and a vast curling roof. They were awaited by three Japanese officers and a man in a black suit who spoke excellent English in a soft voice.

"You have been here several times," he said to Dmitri, pausing a second as if to assess the impact this knowledge would have on him, and then continuing, "and we know how you got here the first time and that you want to help. How could you do that, honored sir?"

Dmitri didn't hesitate. "Don't you want to know the forces the Russians have and the course through the mines and their state of readiness -- I mean if you intend war?"

"Who said we intend war?"

"Never mind that. Answer my question ... honored sir."

The Japanese man in the black suit regarded Dmitri bleakly, seeming to find him unsuitable. "It's no good knowing one day what's not true the next," he said.

"You mean where they've got the mines and who's where and what's what?"

The Japanese man in the black suit didn't answer. He and Dmitri looked at one another for at least a minute. Aaron found this mysterious standoff unbearable. He looked around the meeting room's wall at the fearsome prints of dragons, deep, brooding gardens, and tsunami scale waves. A fan stirred overhead. In one of the prints there was a grotto and in the grotto there was a man seated with his legs crossed and eyes closed. He was the size of a thumb.

The man in the black suit tipped his head to the naval officer to his left who tipped his head to one of the attending sailors standing by a box covered in orange cloth. The sailor pulled the cloth off the box and revealed a cabinet that was covered with dials and knobs. The sailor pushed a button and the dials lit up and their numbers became visible. He put on a pair of earphones and began making adjustments with the knobs. At last he picked up a small microphone and began speaking into it. As he did this, the man in the black suit translated.

"He is telling Tokyo that he can hear what Tokyo is saying clearly. Tokyo is saying the same thing to him. You see, we don't need telegraph lines anymore because we have this, and the Russians don't, so if we cut Russia's lines and use this wireless device, they cannot communicate with their forces, but we can communicate with ours."

Dmitri said, "I think I understand." He put his hand on Aaron's shoulder. "Teach him how to do this. He's the smartest of us. And provision my ship. I'll take the Russians food and scout things out and we'll tell you right away what we see."

"Perhaps you should do this twice, once to establish your bona fides, the second time before we act."

"No, once," Dmitri said, "and give us time to get out."

"All right, once."

"And one more thing. Who cuts the telegraph lines?"

"A Russian the British call Reilly. Now sake, honored sir?"

"Yes, please, honored sir. Lots of sake," Dmitri said.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-10-01
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