The Germans call them Totenschiffs. They’re barges that have seen too many days, or a trawler that’s seen bad weather, or perhaps just a re-purposed wreck.
You will know the second you step onto one. The air will be stale and tense, like someone’s wake. No one will make eye contact with you. The seamen are drunks on their last legs, or perhaps just old skippers who don’t want to wind down their days telling tales in front of a fire. Desperate. You must be too, to accept work on one of these barges. Maybe you’ve lost one hand of cards too many, or maybe you’ve run out of distractions on the land. Whatever it is, you’re ready to spend your last coin on the ferryman.
It never happens right away. A smart man will space out the journeys, first a short run to the next coast for supplies, then maybe a little further away for some foreign goods. Eventually comes the biggest journey, where the ship will be loaded with riches to make trade, or so he says. You’ll know what’s really coming. Every creak of the boat could be the one to send you downwards. A smart man will plan for you to go down with the ship. He might poke holes in the lifeboats, fill the jackets with sand. It’s in his best interest that you never make it to shore.
You’ve accepted anyway. No choice in the matter. It’s nothing to be missed, really, what’s one handful of sailors in the ledger of history?
But then sometimes you have passengers.
Maybe it’s revenge. Maybe it’s cruelty. Maybe it’s good old-fashioned business sense: he can point to the passenger list and say ‘see? see what I stood to lose?‘ Then it’s tragedy and time and a tidy sum for the bastard.
Maybe it’s some poor oik packing off for Australia, going to raise himself some sheep among the Eucalyptus. Worse, it could be a young couple too poor for a passenger ship, with a young gel between them, hair yellow-gold like cornsilk. She could’ve been your daughter in another life. Her happiness stings as you watch her skip up the gangplank. You know what’s coming. If you have any light left in your soul, she never will.
The weather’s always fair setting out. It’s like God himself is seeing you off. The docks never look more welcoming than when you’re traveling away from them. You could still jump ship; it’s possible to reach the shore, even in your arthritic crawl, but you stay where you are.
The passengers might remark on the food. It seems like you’ve been shorted proper rations for the trip, should they complain? They know someone, or are related to someone that does. You listen politely and then laugh behind their backs.
There’s a cog winding down in your heart. It’s the same in all the men’s hearts. It has been winding steadily down every time you’ve boarded one of these boats, and it’s never been refreshed by a step ashore. You have been making peace with death in your own way for years now.
No matter how you chart the journey, no matter how you catch the wind, you will always fall before you ever sight your destination. Even a stupid man who claims a cargo of gold when everyone knows he deals in lumber knows how to rig a hull.
If you’re fortunate there is poison enough on board to send you skyward before you sink. Kinder men would kill the passengers first, but death has made you selfish. If there is no poison, some hopeful fools might try to hobble together rafts from scrap wood. They know better than to touch anything made to look safe.
When it happens, you might be in the middle of a thought. One second you’re contemplating your misdeeds, or lost opportunities, the next Neptune bends your ship over and gives it the Flying Dutchman. The passengers would not panic, not at first, because they trust you. Their faith is a bitter canker oozing in your gut as the men scramble about on pretense of doing something effective. Perhaps they really will try to salvage one of the boats. They might lash and tar scraps of wood, tables, anything that looks like it might float. The passenger’s child might ooh at the swell of the boat, laughing and clapping at the display. You reside in a special kind of hell, one trapped entirely behind that girl’s eyes.
It is only when you tumble into the deep that you show signs of life. You have resigned yourself to death, but no one thought to tell your body that. You kick and crawl and fight to keep your head above the waves. You and your shipmates form a human chain, crowding like polyps against the ocean’s wrath. For the first time in the journey there is a sense of community, those that swim aid those that cannot. You supervise the lashing of a barrel to a table, your traitor body makes sturdy knots even in the cold.
You all reach stability and float in a crown on the surf, in surprisingly good spirits. There is a camaraderie that reaches between class lines, you have all gained the mantle of “survivor” and it unites you against the elements. You have fought so hard to stay afloat it becomes its own reason. You must keep living because you must keep living. Buoyed up by each other, you are promised the shore.
Perhaps it is the child who first spots the fins in the water. A shudder of excitement races through you as one: dolphins! Greek sailors called them dolphys and thought them gods in animal form. You are in no position to argue as you wave your arms, yell at the top of your lungs with your fellow castaways. Here, here! The fins draw eagerly close and now your plea dies on your lips. Perhaps you are the only one to see that their tails slice the water from side-to-side, or that they do not break the surface for air.
They call them “death ships” in English, and you realize only now that the reason is twofold. You have been dead since before the journey started. In a way, you needed this. As the sharks circle and your grip loosens, you are finally home.