Abyss & Apex : March/April 2004: My Duties Aboard Ship


My Duties Aboard Ship

by Steve Wilson


Standing outside the church, she freed herself from her father’s crooked arm and came over to me.

“I will miss you tonight,” she said, sticking her tongue in my ear. I, too, would miss her and would sleep with only the sheets for company. She slipped her gloved hands beneath my shirt and smoothed the hair on my back.

Marianna, my sweet. I had met her while scouring the Mars emporiums for the silk I needed to sew tunics for my captain. Creating exciting tunics is one of my duties aboard ship. She worked at the cutting counter of the silk shop. She was intrigued by my theories on group dynamics, boundaries and conflict, and my exciting tunic designs.

After work we walked back to the ship together. My captain, clad in breeches and mustache and plundered pearl earrings, showed her the ship. He had charming pirate ways, spoke with knife clenched between teeth, told tales of drunkenness and interstellar navigation, and scuffed the rough soles of his feet when she looked his way.

We stayed docked at Mars Colony Three while my captain and I made frequent trips to the further outposts. I gave lectures on astronautical history at the Mars Sorbonne. He courted. She split her time between us.

“Together you are the perfect man,” she said to me once. “It is no wonder you have such success in your work.”

Whenever we were alone she wanted to learn. I explained quantum mechanics, geophysical terminology, and English grammar. I had much to teach, and she was a fine student, with a wondrously flexible mind. She was never afraid to admit her ignorance. She asked many questions.

“Is it necessary for there to be a difference between energy and matter? May I join independent clauses by a comma?”

I wondered if this lust for learning might cause trouble. Once, as the captain displayed his sword mastery by fencing ten men with both hands tied behind his back, sword hilt gripped in his teeth, she turned away to ask me something about the transient effects of light and color in Impressionist paintings. Luckily the captain was occupied. She had no idea what a faux pas she had committed: He would have been furious. ‘A time for piracy, a time for learning, and never the twain shall meet,’ he used to say to me when my lectures fell upon tired ears. After that I made efforts to keep our interactions discrete.

Outside the church I removed her arms from their movement along my most hirsute flank.

“You are soon to be bonded in holy wedlock, it is not appropriate,” I explained to her.

This was also one of my duties aboard ship. I rendered down the complex to the understandable. The abstract to the concrete. For my captain I extracted facts hidden in lengthy magazine articles. I extricated meaning from the complex system of vowels and consonants formed out of the expulsion of air from mouths.

That is an interesting phenomenon. In my time working for the captain I have studied it. I have noted that some mouths expel more air than others. Some expel air with great gusto. Others allow the air to merely dribble over the lower incisors. Often the expulsion of air has no meaning other than the making of noise, which is done to prevent fear and loneliness. I have studied this phenomenon as well. It was how I earned my graduate degree. The prevention of loneliness, the fear of loneliness. That is why sounds are formed in the mouth.

I had explained this to her husband. Now I explained it to her. Also I commented on the salty quality of the air and mentioned again the impending marriage.

“I love it when you’re lecturing,” she said, nipping at my harelip. Her father smiled at me and nodded. He seemed pleasant.

After the wedding she pulled me into the brush outside the church and poked plastic cornflowers into my nostril hairs. I examined the situation and reported to her the approximate odds of our being discovered in a position that would be deemed irregular.

“I have seen your husband’s knife,” I said to her. “I sharpened it this morning.” That was another of my duties aboard ship.

“Whisper to me more about marriage rituals on Earth.” She tickled my clubfoot.

“It is common in all societies for the woman to be given to the man along with trade goods. In our society the female’s family is given the responsibility of paying for the wedding and following celebration.”

“In return for which the man agrees to provide for his wife,” she said.

“You have a fine grasp on the nature of your contract.”

Later, our inactivity upon the dance floor was noted. We were watched by her husband, tearing the flesh from a haunch, tossing quarts of beer into his mouth, and spitting. There was glass all around him.

“Pirates prefer not to have their feet clad,” I declared, after careful observation of my shipmates.

Later he thanked me for dancing with her. He was a shy man. That was why he pirated. Shyness is common among pirates. Innate feelings of inadequacy covered up by swaggering, lasersword play, and the destruction of peaceful shuttles. I told him that I was glad to dance with his spouse, considered it my duty. I told him how fortunate he was. He shrugged, turning red, and looked away.

During the honeymoon I stayed in the room next door, with piles of clean towels and fresh wrapped bars of hotel soap. I ironed the captain’s garments and inventoried his earrings. This was another of my duties.

After the honeymoon we moved aboard ship, but didn’t stay for long. The captain was distressed by his wife’s inclination to vomit during the mildest of evasive maneuvers. His pirate sense of propriety was engaged. I proclaimed to him soft expulsions of air and combined my vowels and consonants with skill and verve. He perceived my line of argument and agreed. What else could he do? He was a husband. She was his wife. His duty was to make her comfortable.

He bought a sealed living unit. It was on the edge of a reclaimed plain that was often damp. Always damp, really, but we said often. It was important to be understated, I confided to the captain. The understatement was difficult for him to grasp. I told him that it was considered impolite to brag.

“It is better to be mild in speech and let one’s violent physical actions be cause for fame.”

This he understood. I put him on a regimen of repeating lines from The Hartford Finishing School basic textbook while pillaging mining stations in small asteroid belts.

“May I escort you to your escape pod?” he asked as he set flame to the wreckage of a Churchill Drilling Machine. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance,” he announced while thrusting a lasersword through a defender’s belly. The press looked upon him with great respect. The Martian royal family granted him immunity. He became terribly terribly. The quality of his looting grew as well.

“I do believe I have discovered my station in life,” he told me. “I wish to express my complete and total gratitude to you.” He expelled his breath smoothly and regularly, like the air that flows from industrial heating ducts on a silky spring day. I made certain tonal changes and declared that it was not worth mentioning.

Then I sent him off to plunder. He bowed before leaving. When his wife and I were alone she came to me.

“I am coming to you,” she said, “so that you may press your tongue against the concave side of your teeth and declare the knowledge that lives behind your eyes. Spread the excess of your researches upon my bared bosom.” She unbuttoned buttons.

“Consider that words were created as aids to memory and have served their purpose.” I said. “Later generations will use symbols and visual aids like movies and colored flash cards. The fine distinctions words are capable of will lose ground against emotions expressed through combinations of hue.”

“Yes,” she said, “yes.”

“People will display yellow for petulance, green for envy, off-white for slight annoyance.”

“Will there still be misunderstandings?”

“Of course. Some people are colorblind. Mostly men.”

“You are a prophet.”

I blushed at this, red as a boiled lobster. “I merely seek to interpret human behavior for the future use of other students.”

“Your modesty makes you all the more adorable.”

I created large meals when the captain was home. Meatloaf the size of an engine block, coq au vin prepared in the overturned hull of a Quonset hut, salads served in swimming pools.

“You are my favorite of all the pirates and all the cooks,” the captain said to me. I flashed a magenta card at him to signify my pleased embarrassment.

“I am honored to serve you,” I said.

“I shall always be pleased by your service.”

When he left to climb into his great slumbering bed in the north room his wife came to me again.

“I’m scared.”.She was showing me a yellow starburst, rimmed with red.

“Tell me,” I said.

“Some day he will know, some day he will see. My husband is not dull or insensitive. He will find us out and kill us. I’m scared. Tell me what to do.”

“There are several options,” I said.

There were several options. We examined them.

“We could kill him,” I said.

“But his death would not be easy. He has the heart of a lion, which was transplanted at great cost. His bulk is much and there are the guards that stand around his bed.”

“I am his cook and could poison him,” I said.

“Then there is the thing we must live with.” She was thinking about the size of the solar system, and two people, and murder. She told me so by the way she arched her neck and toyed with the end of my stub leg.

“What if we ran away?” I asked.

“But I cannot run fast in these heels,” she said. “And my husband is so strong, like the scent released at close range by a skunk, and will not slow in his pursuit of us.”

“Mars will not be big enough,” I said.

“You see things so clearly.”

“We could kill ourselves in a suicide pact.”

“No, that would not work, for in death I could not comb my hair in the reflection on your glass eye.”

“But those are our options, we must choose one.”

“Let us put off choosing until tomorrow.” She clung to my sixth toe affectionately. I agreed, although I maintained my typical emotional reserve. I was thinking about consequences and futures. How would we be without him? Without him I would live no better than a lunar bus conductor. I am not a leader, like my captain. I displayed light green to communicate my uncertainty.

“Tell me,” she said.

“I wonder if we could be together without him. We both love him. Is our love for each other the excess of our love for the captain?”

She did not display brown, for surprise and betrayal, but canary, for sad understanding.

“Then your love for me is not a true love,” I said.

“My love is the other kind of love, which is not so bad and more easily accessible,” she admitted.

“Has it always been that way?”

“It’s a problem of division,” she said. “Neither of you are enough man for me, and I am either not enough woman or too much. To him I am a collection of body parts controlled by a mind. To you I am a mind, supported by body parts. I cannot fully love he who does not see all of me as equal. It is almost enough having the two of you . . . but not quite.” She paused. “So yes, it has always been that way.”

She was a proud woman. I did love her mind, for it filled with my knowledge like a scuttled ship fills with water. I enjoyed her body parts too. But perhaps not enough.

“I guess my love is the other kind as well,” I admitted.

“So some day one of us will find true love and leave.”

“I will be happy for that person,” I said.

“I shall be too.”

We showed cards of olive and sat quietly. I could hear the captain’s mighty snores from the far-off bed.

“He is a great man,” I said. “I’m glad we decided not to kill him.”

“And I! He is a darling husband. Brave and strong and true. He is so true. Once there was a part of him that was untrue—his smallest toe on his left foot, it was crooked and darker in color, but it has been removed and now all of him is true.”

“He is known as a pirate’s pirate. He is fearless, and an excellent navigator. He has great skill at finding ships laden with goods to plunder. It is all instinct. One time we were sitting in a station bar off Neptune when he got up suddenly and told me to follow. We aimed the ship outward, just the two of us, and intercepted a Dutch vessel that was loaded with rum for New Amsterdam. He had no way of knowing it would be there. Just a hunch. So great was his reputation, they surrendered immediately. The Dutch captain was smiling, I remember. We set the crew on a reclaimed asteroid and took the ship in tow. Just the two of us.”

“That’s it!” she said.


“He is my husband. It his duty to provide me with the things of comfort. If I demand a thing from him, he must leave here to get it for me.”

“Then we may be alone together.”

“And we will send him off again and again for far away things!”

“Let us look.”

We admired an atlas.

“System 358792. New Bali,” she said. “It is on the other side of the galaxy. That is where I shall send him.”

“What for?”

“For soap. New Bali is renowned for its lovely shapes of soap.”

“A splendid plan. It wriggles under my breastbone.”

“You are the poet of academics.”

In the morning, the captain prepared to go. I baked a banana-nut loaf in a hollowed out landing module, for him to take along. For breakfast I prepared a bowl of Wheaties in a piano case.

“The breakfast of champions,” he said. “You are my most gracious and charming servant, and my most trustworthy one as well. I shall be dark of brow for the months of my traveling that we shall be apart.”

“Captain, O my captain,” I said. We embraced in a manful hug. There were some tears, I admit. She was right about him. He was all true. Not a bit of falseness.

“Take care of my wife,” he said. “I am entrusting the key to her chastity belt to you.” He placed it, hanging from a golden chain, around my neck. His wife and I waved goodbye as he strode off to meet his ship.

“The basic operation of the bit and barrel lock is a series of metal gates within the lock that prevent any key, except that which is minus the metal on corresponding points, turning.” I said.

“Tell me more. Describe to me the invention of the tumbler, the theory behind master-keying, the wafer lock, and the elusive sidebar.”

“First take me to your bedroom. I want to examine the quilt.”

She took me to her bed. We admired the quilt on it.

“It is a fine quilt,” I said.

“It was made for me by the maid.”

“She must care for you very much.”

“Yes, she has an altar in her garret on which she burns incense and sacrifices small animals underneath a picture of my face.”

“A fine quilt.”

It was a gorgeous quilt. It was made of scraps of cloth of varying colors and sizes, and we could see that it was a quilt of the highest quality.

We did not hear the door open and were examining the tightness and skill of the stitching when her husband returned. He had forgotten his favorite dirk.

“My own wife! My own cook!” He wept and fell to his knees and assumed a position of great tragedy and rhetoric.

“Struck to the heart by the very two whom I admire most, whose qualities and parts I have spoken of across the seven seas and the five hundred and sixty three rivers. Betrayed by the two I love most—in my own castle!”

He had improved greatly upon the meager beginnings the Hartford Finishing School textbook had provided him with.

My captain picked up the knife that I kept sharp, and stood . He was bigger than the room and bumped his head on the ceiling. “Ouch.”

I clung to the lace of his wife’s petticoat. She grappled with my appendix scar.

“Forgive me, Marianna,” he said. But he did not kill her. He removed one of her slippers and impaled it to the headboard with his favorite dirk—the time-honored Pirate Notice of Pending Divorce Action. He called me out of the room and set me to work drawing up the papers. He did not mention finding me studying his wife’s quilt. Not once. I perceived this to show great sensitivity and forgiving on the part of my captain.

I wrote a short and fine divorce contract, leaving her the housing unit and a portion of all his pillaged goods until she remarried. When she signed it she looked at me in a sad way. She did not speak. She knew I would go with him. I wished her well. Sincerely. She is a fine woman and I hope she will not be too lonely. I believe her father is coming to stay with her for a while.

That evening I cooked my captain a bathtub full of French onion soup and we moved back aboard the ship.

“No more fancy life for me,” he said. “I’ve donated my wardrobe to the Prince of New Belgium. All my appointments have been cancelled. We shall go back to space and stay there.”

The crew hoisted the solar mainsail and began to sing a rousing chorus of ‘Blow the Man Down.’ The captain brought me into his cabin and spoke to me.

“I hope you appreciate what I have done. I have saved you from the fate of love and marriage, which rots a man’s insides and weakens his stomach. I am indebted to you, of course, for your actions brought to my notice the weakness that she was bringing among us. You were almost lost. You have me to thank for rescuing you, as I have you to thank for rescuing me.”

“Pirates must always stick together,” I agreed.

“Make me something with lots of garlic in it,” he said. “You are my greatest cook and my best knife sharpener. Make me something that will kill my pain, and sing with me this evening and explain the movement of the stars as we pass beneath them. Flash cards at me in evidence of your loss. We shall be in space for a long time, and perhaps there is enough time for you to explain to me that manner in which you have acquired your vast knowledge.”

“I would do anything for you, my captain. You are so true.”

We pillaged with great flair that night, and set a Saturnian station aflame and flashed our cards at the screaming settlers. As we soared away, the ship laden with goods that were not our own, we watched the reflection of the burning station in the pilot bay windows. It was a beautiful sight.

“My wife would not have appreciated this,” my captain said.

“No, she wouldn’t.”

He turned to me then and smiled, and I made excuses to go below. I wanted to make up a set of cards that, when displayed, would communicate the essence of that smile.

Steve Wilson publishes Motionsickness: The Other Side of Travel and is a big fan of pirates everywhere. Check out www.motionsickmag.com


Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.


Art Director: Bonnie Brunish

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