Trouble Aboard the Maiden’s Travel Without Any Trouble is my novel.
It’s about a man named Bud Barrowston who struggles to be reaccepted into everyday society after his time in the penitentiary. It’s about the villainous Captain Dylan who raids a yacht, the Travel Without Any Trouble. It’s about Sierra, a young woman going through a divorce, and her struggles to discover who she is. It’s about Hans, a time-traveler. It’s about the freedom to practice what you believe, and it’s about what happens after death. It’s about 100,000 words long. It’s got illustrations and poetry. It tells the story of my life and others’. It tells of the obstacles that people overcome and of the hope that sets us free.
New chapters will be added as they’re completed.
In Loving Memory of Dr. Frank L. Gibson
“Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.”
—The Moody Blues
“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
“Thou know’st ’tis common;
that all lives must die,
passing through nature to eternity.”
“Sailor, sailor, sailor… I’m sending birds to watch over you.”
Freedom follows fantasy.
Prologue: La Grande Mort in the Port Under the Sybaritic Stars of Yesteryear
The time is that poetical night-hour, when monsters roam and cruise children’s bedrooms, when the gas pipes shine, and pools of oil reflect spangles of lamplight, when the alleycats hunch over dumpsters and scamper through the moonbeams that slip through the interstices of fence slats. Song Jiang and Vasilyev stumble drunkenly along a rickety wharf, fog rolling and curling beneath it, coal colored water lapping against its pylons, strung with barnacles and moss green algae. The planks are knotted, wet, and cracking, the gulls which sit atop the pylons during the day have flown; in the shadows ahead of Song and Vasilyev, a cat’s amber eyes twinkle for a moment, then are gone again. Like a castle in the clouds, rising from the harbor behind them, is the great white yacht, the Maiden’s Travel Without Any Trouble. She floats regally in the water, her bow sharp as shark teeth, the silver of her rails shining in the moonlight, the curved black windows as reflective as the devil’s eyes. The night is as delicate as a soap bubble; dark iridescent colors – purples, cobalts, chimney-sweep blacks – wave and waffle in the swells and flexing curvature of the lapping tide. The clatters and rumbles of the city seem far off and muted, and all would be still and peaceful, if it weren’t for the men’s rum shanty,
We are the most despised of the abhorred
from deserts to the rime-ice fjords
looking o’er the abrupt edge of the world…
with veneered souls: knotty, burled.
Take care, take care tonight.
Let the filial ones sleep tight,
and keep your pretty daughters tucked in bed.
Kiss her curls, her nose, her forehead.
Bolt your doors, lock out the night;
we’re hellhounds ’til the morning light…
In bars, and dens, and tenements bare,
with bloodstained carpets and broken chairs,
we make our one night stands and drunks within.
Like Hell’s colossus, leviathan,
with arms and hands tattooed in sin,
with laughter amongst the pale denizens;
we’ve drowned sailors in the darkened seas,
we’ve killed the cloistered in abbeys.
Young men follow in our shoe prints
with damaged dreams and sixpence,
with razorthin waists and necks like swans,
like bandoliered bandits from times long gone.
Tell the spirits below we’ll join them soon
with a Jameson glass and purse o’ doubloons!
Tell the kitty women walking the city’s street
to hide in shadows when they hear our feet.
Have a care, have some caution, be well warned:
when you see Vasilyev, with his broad hands corned,
his heart frozen by Moscow’s December,
his eyes lurid as an igneous ember,
gold rings on his fingers and silver ’pon his neck,
with teeth as splintered as a shipwreck,
wavy hair to shoulders, bulleted bandolier on chest…
Aye! Lock your wife away, if you know what’s best!
And if your weather eye spots that jaundiced Chinaman,
Song Jiang, with his mind as cunning as quixotic zen –
Song Jiang, whose father named him in a fit of madness,
whose mother was a thesaurus entry for sadness,
whose sister was the hope ray in his life
before she tumbled into salacious Beijing nightlife –
Song Jiang from rural western China
black as the raven or hill myna,
who tortured cats, set fires as a child,
who wet the bed, who was reviled,
Song Jiang with the tawny body, all flesh and bone,
the assassin who prefers to kill alone…
See him and hide ye well, whisper no word,
be as silent as the concealed bird.
Aye, when you see us men, don’t call our names,
drown your voice in fear, speed your legs with same.
Remember us most, though, after we hang
as members of the antagonistic…
They’re in the Old World now, a million damp and gleaming cobblestones away from sun baked Mexico, staggering to an appointment with Captain Dylan himself. Song Jiang carries a letter that he wrote to his sister, telling her that he’ll soon be aboard the Travel as a stowaway. He has promised her a sweet reunion after their years apart, and he has said that they’ll cobble a future together from the lacerated leather in the seams of their lives. Their boots land heavy and awkward upon the planks of the wharf; they trip and stumble, dodder and sway. When they reach a post office box, grinning Song Jiang pulls down its door, attempts to reach into its belly, bangs his hand against the back of the door, curses, shows his crazy yellow teeth. He lets loose the letter that he bore, and the post box door clangs shut. Then the pair stagger into the night, fading towards that famous inn on the sea, the Port Under the Sybaritic Stars of Yesteryear, which glows faintly now in their vision; the soft glow of candles shines through its filmy windows, and that light beckons them nearer.
The window of the Port Under the Sybaritic Stars of Yesteryear is clouded in an opaque white residue, its baseboard is buried beneath a thumbwidth layer of dust, and its washed-out wooden grille is cracked. Through the misty glass, silhouettes and blurred figures can be seen tipping back steins, laughing, and passing back and forth before the light. The busty contours of barmaids, who will look older in sober morning, walk the floor, smiling and tossing back their hair. The exterior is shaped like the stern of a pirate ship, with those windows looking like the bulbous eyes of an ancient benthic fish or of the eyes of some sweating, starving sailor, orbs bright and shining.
Vasilyev hiccoughs, pushes the door open, and they fall into the bar. Heads are raised and, as they are recognized, the less drunk patrons slink towards the side door. The bar is a double-barreled one, two stories, and on the second floor balcony is a piano with a pianoman all wrapped up in mystic fire with an unlit torpedo shaped cigar in his Ghanaian, determined mouth; his skin as black as his heart is red; he is playing for his life, and he is finding it up there. He is Baako, Bluesman they call him, whose music is so clear and expressive that you can understand from it his hopeful, yearning nature as easily as looking through a clear window. On the microphone is a lady, Serena, copper skinned, hair of ebony rings, with a voice etheral and high as a chandelier. She has watery eyes, their ivory whites shaded fuchsia by the purple lights, as is her dress: thobe-like Mohammadan, angelic. Her voice is sharp enough to cut stone, sensitive enough to nurse a newborn. Together with Baako the Bluesman, she is investing her life in the music, telling her trials in notes and bars,
He said, Give me your blood.
I said, I ain’t got none left to give.
He said, You still got heart in you.
I said, God, I don’t know how I live.
Said, Woman, you got spirit to rouse a man.
I say, And I got sins still left to forgive.
Ain’t no man I’ll bow down before
Ain’t no man whose feet I’ll kiss
I got pride though I be poor
I got more dignity than this.
Says he, Where you gon’ run to?
Says I, To Hell and back, to Hell and back.
Says he, Where you gonna hide?
I said, In the night, dark as a coal sack.
He said, Don’t be a fool, woman, don’t be a fool.
I said, You come a step closer, I won’t hold back.
Ain’t no man I’ll bow down before
Ain’t no man whose feet I’ll kiss
I got pride though I be poor
I got more dignity than this.
Says he, You know what’s comin?
I said, I can foresee the news.
Says he, I’ll make you sorry.
I said, I can sing the blues.
Says he, You ain’t never gonna win.
I said, I will never lose.
Ain’t no man I’ll bow down before
Ain’t no man whose feet I’ll kiss
I got pride though I be poor
I got more dignity than this.
She’s holding the microphone cord out at her side, her free elbow is out, her back’s straight, and she stands like an angel, even as the purple disco lamp above her head turns to halo gold, and there flares from her a desperate hope so strong that every patron in the bar can damn well feel it. Her hope reverberates through the bar, pounding the walls, ricocheting through corners, almost corporeal in form; it comes from the pit of her chest, is patchwork from years of rips, tears, and mending, and bound up in that hope is a mournful, desperate lament whose soulful genesis is a human harbor of unread messages in bottles, faded tattoos of hearts, tideswept sand castles, and landbound voyagers. And everyone in the bar gets it. Everyone in the bar understands exactly the piano’s melancholy beat of hammer against steel strings; everyone fathoms the fact that the slave-song lyrics she sings are her words to our song.
They’re none of them made of rock in the Port Under the Sybaritic Stars of Yesteryear, although some of them lie about it; they’re made of dreams and hopes, of longing for what’s better, of longing for love. The old man in the threadbare navy-blue sweater with the turtleneck collar who has whiskers more salt than pepper and whose flesh hangs more than sticks to his bones, whose eyes are bluest of blue skies, in whose mouth is a corncob pipe emitting fragrant smoke – this man shakes his head in wonder and remembers a beautiful girl whom even time, cynicism, and nostalgia cannot blur: remembers her standing on a hilltop – dark against the sunset, bathed in her own shadow – sweeping her hair over her shoulder, turning with the lithe grace of a Degas ballerina, presenting without ostentation the swell of her breasts, then descending down the far side of the hill, one step at a time, growing smaller, until she is gone beneath the crown of the hilltop. Such memories to him are like an ever-redeeming baptism; time and again, he is refreshed by the cool dream-water, thus he is admitted anew into the cathedral of mankind, until, when the harsh bright light of each new day comes, the sunlight illuminates the deficiencies of his plain, timid, and impoverished face, and the beastly snare of car horns and the caustic burble of citizens’ everyday street talk frighten him into the safety of his own delicate psychological interior.
Near the old man, a waitress nearly blushes as hope conjures up a recollection of a young girl’s dream to be a woman with a reputable job and in a house that murmurs with the voices of her precious children… But the waitress’ blue mornings are cool with the sense of sadness; the broken bathroom mirror casts a crack across her reflection as she looks into it, face dripping with water from the dawn washing. Yet still the nights are, at times like this, as optimistic as youth.
The disco light changes from gold to red. Even the drunker patrons take note of Vasilyev and Song Jiang, their dg, Dylan’s Gang, tattoos inked in black and orange on the underside of their wrists. Song Jiang and Vasilyev approach a booth in which a refined, handsome man sits. He is José Cortez, with full white teeth, Spanish blood, eyes the color of almond oil, skin as fine as Gethsemane olives. He absentmindedly spins a stiletto by keeping his finger beneath the guard, twirling the weapon, and letting precession fight gravity, while he studies a blueprint of a yacht, the Travel Without Any Trouble.
Vasilyev takes him in with unguarded disgust, “Where’s Dylan, fresa?”
José replies coolly, “Have a seat, Vasilyev. You and Song were called like dogs, and you came. Don’t expect the jefe to wait on you.”
Vasilyev grunts, looks around the bar for other members of Dylan’s Gang, or for Dylan himself, but Vasilyev sees only the patrons, the richly stained walnut bar glossy with lacquer, the barman in his stained white apron drying out a pint glass with a wet rag, and the rows of liquor bottles which stand beneath a lamp in a stained-glass shade whose dim light makes the bottles appear darkly luminous. Vasilyev sits heavily in the booth, then he slides to the end to make room for Song Jiang, who curves himself and sits delicately, femininely, like a swan landing on the lake. A waitress sidles up, one hand on her wide hip, her cheeks plump and dimpled, and she asks them to pick their poison, lads. Vasilyev orders a vodka; Song Jiang asks for a glass of red wine; and José a beer. Music sounds from the minstrels’ gallery; Serena and Baako keep time. Song Jiang lights up a rose flavored cigarette. Publicans put their heads together like conspirators. The lights glow an unsteady yellow. The sound of clattering dishes rises from the kitchen. Vasilyev pulls a gold cross from underneath his t-shirt, kisses it, lets it fall beneath his shirt again, pats his chest where the cross is, and leans forward.
“I asked you,” Vasilyev says in his rasping Russian voice, “Where’s Dylan?”
“He sent me instead.”
“We did not come to bargain with a two-bit amorist, some half-hung Lothario muchacho. We came for our share of the gold.”
“You’ll get it,” says José. “But I wouldn’t talk so straight if I were you. Don’t forget that you’re dispensable, after your fiasco in the Sierra Madre.”
“All’s forgiven,” shrugs Song Jiang.
“Then why are you so white?” sneers José, leaning forward. “Nothing to be done about it now, though, water under the bridge, and all that.”
“Who are you to threaten us?” Vasilyev is venomous, vitriolic.
“Dylan’s messenger. Dylan is an illustrious man; why should he spare time for the likes of you?”
“Why wouldn’t he send the Lieutenant?”
“Because you don’t rank high enough even for him.”
“But we rank high enough for you?” Vasilyev asks, eyeing José. “You have all these sweet words for the Captain and the Lieutenant, but you are nothing more than a pissant to them.”
José shrugs, grins, his bright white teeth glinting, debonair. “I was being tongue-in-cheek.”
Vasilyev slowly swirls one dirty finger around the rim of his vodka glass. “Hey José,” he asks, without taking his eyes off Cortez, “Tell me. Is kissing ass tongue in cheek?”
“The joke’s on you tonight, Vasilyev.” José smiles thinly, leans back, and slides his hands into his jacket pockets, while Song Jiang chuckles then sips his wine.
Vasilyev growls, lips lifting to uncover his teeth, his fists pound on the wooden table, eyes narrow and aggressive.
In a twinkling, José whisks a magazine clipping from his pocket, slams it flat on the table, and spikes the stiletto into it. “There! Have a look at that, will you? Think that you’re something? I’m here to tell you that you’ll get your gold, and it will be the last payment that you ever receive – consider yourselves erstwhile members of Captain Dylan’s gang! Consider this your untimely exit out the door! Consider it well, and thank Dylan that you’re leaving with your lives!”
Song Jiang sets down his wine, wrenches out the knife, and brings the magazine clipping close, hands fluttering like a butterfly’s wings. At the top of the article is a handwritten note,
“Hello my beauties, have a look at what your old captain has been reading about himself! It’s a brief synopsis of one of our jaunts, written by some hale, ignorant author, Frederick James, with a penchant for hyperbole yet with a certain suppleness of expression. Some aspects of the tale are remarkably accurate. Whether the author had the acumen to, as it were, ‘triangulate’ from different points of our journeys what likely occurred or whether he spoke to a snitch is a matter of pure speculation. What is certain is that James fails to cast the two of you at all, as if you two were hardly worthy of his ink. And I can’t say that I disagree with his journalistic decision, as obtuse as the two of you so-called conspirators have been. But take a look for yourselves, my dears! Don’t let your good old captain make all the decisions for you! No! Not now, seeing as you’re free men, and with a mind to planning! Planning being one of those fine traits I put stock and store into, seeing as how plotting has propelled me so far during these miserable years…. But here, here’s the work! Make up your minds for yourselves! But first, clear your thoughts, see beyond your grave to what the historians will think of you – as an anonymous part of my gang!”
“The Captain’s Company”
Mountains scarred the dusk sky as the wain creaked along the ridges, grit and dust billowing beneath, while a man in a cotton jerkin sat upon a thwart leading a train of horses with loose reins through scores of leagues, through the grey and brown livery of the land.
Atop his wooden cart burned a lit brazier expectorating malodorous white smoke, and the brazier burned as its fuel the litter and leavings of the dross of humanity. Lying acrossways upon that brazier skewered through with a stick was the head of a blackened doe, the sharp stick having been passed through its ears, and the head all cooked until the flesh was carbonized and the driver, that partisan of violence and ciphers, dragged behind his wagon by a hawser a monstrous burin which graved upon the land a deep trail so that his track could be traced. And when the burin became stuck upon stones buried in the sediment, he only beat the horses carelessly, as thoughtlessly as if he’d learnt abuse by rote.
And there came after him a ragged lieutenant whose good eye was rimed by cataracts, and whose poor one was covered by a patch encrusted by mucus and blood, and there was behind them their crew slogging with horses through that calyx, that whorl of a valley surrounded upon by all sides mountains and the dust. There existed no liquid agent to slake any thirst, so the horses had foamed, and the limping animals had all dried of their lather some long time past. Yet the men continued to beat them, until one animal fell, and the men not even considering the future or perhaps making incongruous concessions to ritual or fortune or deity did not pause to butcher the bony beast, only left it exposed. When the men were some leagues further on, the moon lay in a crescent like the cushion of a lackadaisical, bohemian artist, and the horse was lost from sight. The men pitched their tents at the foot of the mountain, and they pulled from their pockets specie of gold and silver and muttering passed them about to study the faces and obscure origins of their dead makers.
When the sun rose in the morning, the lieutenant set down a dense sun dial carved of jasper, and aligning the gnomon with true north calculated the time, while the leader of that crew, having apathetically discarded both spit and the head during times previous, measured the altitude of the mountain with an iron sextant which he wore around his neck upon a lanyard. There was on that morning a man who would not rise, for he was sick with dehydration, and the lieutenant saying, So see this man’s true color amid this desiccant! did in fact remove from that man both his hands as an attainder, and burning the flesh from them, scraped passively the cartilage and muscle while he rode as a man is wont to whittle a stick, and the blind lieutenant was left with the bony remains of two hands that afternoon as the company passed up the mountains. When the men passed near a steep ravine, the lieutenant cast the bony hands into the gorge, and the men continued traveling. They turned a hairpin corner, found a spring of water was issuing forth from the granite, and the leader of them all put his lips and tongue to the wet wall in a kiss, and he sucked. When it was the last man’s turn to drink, he made haste despite his thirst, for the men were already riding further along the steep path, and in such circumstance he pressed his lips to the vadose wall which smacked of calcite and stone, and he drank.
At last the company reached the mountain’s peak, and they bivouacked in a fissure in the rock, without a fire that night, for their strength lay in their secrecy, and they woke before dawn, and by the time the sun rose they had descended down the mountain a quarter of its height.
The town below lay in a bed of silica, agate, yuccas, and aloe, and there was in it only one street and the leader of that company spit forward upon his horses, and he beat their flanks with a tawse riddled with glass shards. There were upon the horses’ flanks the scars of many beatings, and the animals screamed beneath that taxing thong. The burin acted now as an anchor by which to keep the animals from stumbling down the hill, for the heavy cart that the captain sat upon threatened at all times to overtake the animals from behind and to run them down, and so it would have if that great implement were not being dragged behind. The cart was loaded with the tools of miners: dynamite, powder, torches, picks, mattocks; and the weapons of fell armies: rifles, revolvers, grenades, machetes, bullets, shells, and even a chipped scimitar from God knows where. The town which lay at the foot of the mountain had by now onlookers filtering into the streets, and upon seeing the company in the mountains descending appointed a manciple to coordinate weapons and to revet the bank. A townsman glassed the party with binoculars, observing in that gruesome congress its cynosure and the wagon that he sat upon, and drawing his hand upon whiskers more salt than pepper, remarked, If that ain’t Dylan’s gang, I’m hanged from a honey locust. And indeed as Dylan’s gang approached, the desert town assumed a sepulchral air, as the men in the town barricaded themselves inside the hastily fortified bank: a bolus of eyes peering around pillars and single shot barrels steadied upon countertops, muzzles aimed toward the bank’s locked door.
At the edge of the town, Dylan halted the men with a raised hand, and a company man unhitched the burin from the wain. He spoke to his men in a voice rasping with effort, as if he’d lost his voice in a sickness and would never regain it, No one here is getting out alive. I am the last dynast of the devil’s family, the armature of the dynamo of chaos machines, and the cholera of men. We will hang the tellers and the bankers naked and dead by their wrists to a rafter, for it is only through displays of hegemony that we can grasp dolor and sublimate it, for in violence we express our sorrow and in violence we celebrate our sorrow! At the conclusion of such rasping, the men let out a muted, ragged cheer, and Captain Dylan opened the chest upon the wagon and the men distributed among themselves weapons of war, while the captain hung grenades from rings gusseted into his jerkin and slung rifles by their straps over his shoulders and with a cocked revolver in each hand at waist level strode into town without looking back even to see if his men followed behind him or fled, and the lieutenant grasping at sticks of dynamite, for he was an admitted poor shot what with his eyes, stuffed the dynamite into the pockets of his jacket and hefted a half full keg of powder from the trove and, stowing the barrel upon his shoulder and thus armed with the explosives and feeling inside him a desiderate for wanton cruelty, he began the walk into town
Dylan’s company walked right up the main and only street.
The wind blew a hot breeze, and there were the sounds of scuffling about, of final preparations from within the bank, and a few mutterings from Dylan’s company. Dylan himself fired the first shot when the men were still some ways off from the bank, and he shot straight through the bank’s door, then ejected the spent smoking casing, and reloaded. With a whoop, the men stormed the bank, loping and shooting, and when they drew near the entrance the snipers on the rooftops began to pick them off, but Dylan’s men howled and were indomitable, and the flimsy lock upon the bank door gave way at the second shoulder thrown into it, while from inside the rifles were fired, and more of Dylan’s men were shot down like dogs.
There was a score of men inside the bank, and all were in the end beheaded and hung from their wrists naked as the captain ordered, and the vault of the bank was blasted open, and from that trove more gold and silver bars were thrown into the coffer, and a man who had lain in hiding rose above the counter suddenly, and with a single shot he terminated the life of the lieutenant and for his efforts, the townsman was hung upside-down and naked from a rafter while a company man slit his throat with a bowie knife so that the townsman’s death, among the many others, might serve as a terrible example and cautionary tale.
There were folk screaming from rooftops, and all were ignored.
Captain Dylan shut the trunk of the chest and locking it with an iron padlock bade his men to saddle up, and they did, a new man riding to the fore in replacement of the late lieutenant, this new man with a jacket whose mantle was of fox fur and he was without teeth and in such raiment he stank of something foul and wicked, and saying only very little the men beat their horses into activity and began the journey towards a distant town, their faces to the setting sun, their shadows lying long behind.
“Aye lads, and what do ye think of that pretty little piece of literature?” Captain Dylan’s note continued in his spidery scrawl. “Depicts me as having only a wisp of imagination and devoid of humor. Completely inaccurate that; I’m right jolly. The oak trunk with the brass studs and the skeleton lock, the one that once contained the gold, is empty. Black humor, isn’t it? I think of the context—the two of you having traveled across Mexico, stowed away on a freighter, reached England a month later, and planned, throughout, to murder me and retake the money that I double-crossed from you—only to find here a simple note and an empty chest? If I were there, you’d hear my laughter all round. Gallows humor, my darlings. Yet I’m sporting. You’ll find the money at the stroke of midnight. X marks the spot.”
Vasilyev looks up, thunderstruck, as the notes of Mozart—Dylan’s favorite composer—are struck upon the piano.
There’s Octavio, with Ernesto the toco toucan upon his shoulder, standing behind Baako with a cocked revolver clapped to the horrorstruck pianoman’s temple. Beads of sweat run down his brown face, the saltwater so clear it seems to magnify the skin, which is, in fact, a dark chocolate, almost ebony. Baako’s big white eyes are as white as envelopes and as big around as quarters; Octavio’s gun is as cold against Baako’s hot head as ice on a hot cast-iron stove, and the metal bears hard into Baako’s skin. Baako utters not a word, but stands with a straight back and his chin raised, like a man with dignity, like a man with some deep, dark, irreproachable, unconquerable dignity, a quality that strives against and overmasters his burgeoning fear. It is that same quality that lent to his music, transferred to his dignity, to his sense of tense nobility. The copper skinned singer escapes into shadows; patrons leave their foamy beers and unpaid bills; the blue-turtlenecked man pauses briefly, clutches his heart and the doorjamb, then hurries to the crowd that is streaming to the street. Wide-eyed Baako continues to drip sweat. A waitress, returning from the kitchen with a plate of steaming meat and three flagons of beer, drops them and screams. At this point, Octavio fires his revolver into the air and Ernesto squawks, digs his talons into Octavio’s shoulder, and flaps his clipped wings futilely. The notes on the piano clang in tumult; a patron dives out the window, and those remaining in the bar, bolt. Even the cook vanishes, as quietly as steam into the air.
Then, with the subtlety and craftiness of cockroaches emerging from the walls, Dylan’s gang infiltrate the Port Under the Sybaritic Stars of Yesteryear. Bill Scabbard emerges phantomesque from a quarter whose lightbulbs he has unscrewed. Louis Bragg—the pirate dressed in full black, the completeness of which is adultered only by a rainbow-colored cravat—looks up evilly from a shadowy corner booth and pulls up the brim of his ebony, felt tricorner hat which is bound round its middle with a black ribbon. Carlos El Tornillo appears from the kitchen, leans against the doorframe, and looks casually over the scene with a toothpick in his mouth. Malthus “Black Death” Nephraum slips through the front door, scimitar held in parallel to his body, its tip pointed celestially.
Petra Mueller, who’s been charading as a lady of the night, glances with some concern at Octavio, whom she adores, and then, ferretting beneath her skirt, extracts from her garter belt a double-bladed switchblade and, unzipping her purse, produces a single shot Derringer, which she twirls upon her finger. Conspicuously absent are the Lieutenant and the illustrious Captain Dylan.
Mozart’s serenade is revived at the prodding of Octavio.
“X marks the spot,” sneers José, baring his white teeth in a shark’s smile, drawing aside his coat to show the S&W revolver in a shoulder holster, the orange and black dg tattoo suddenly visible on the underside of his left wrist. “Don’t try to be courageous. The time for courage has passed. Just do as you’re told.”
He points to the floor under the balcony. There is an X there, rendered with electrical tape. Octavio, who is standing on the balcony, gun still to Baako’s temple, extracts two leather sacks from his jacket. He tosses the sacks off the balcony, where they land with the jingle and clink of doubloon on Krugerrand on gold eagle, near the X on the floor.
“What are you waiting for, Vasilyev?” mocks José.
“The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, and I fear a trap. That’s what. What, after all, do I have to ensure that there’s no treachery here?”
“Is my word not good enough?” José, sardonic, smiles thinly.
Vasilyev laughs hollowly. “You’re a double-dealer if there ever was one, Cortez. At minimum, don’t lie to our faces. But you’ll see,” and here Vasilyev smiles. “We’re no fools!”
With a swift motion, Vasilyev produces a .50 Desert Eagle and levels it at José Cortez’s nose.
Vasilyev says, “Now, there’s a gamble on the table. And at least I shall get my word in to you, you whose heart is as rotten as your face is pure. Your tongue is as forked as lightning, enough to shame the devil, and to make your mother wish that you were born of another man—or not at all, should her prayers come true. For our own part among the Sierra Madres, you had the Judas role. And traitor though Judas was, at least he had the decency to hang himself, a level of decency which I wish that you would attain. So now, José Cortez, the day of your own reckoning is as near to Hell as it is to me!”
José smiles permissively. He gestures with his gun towards the X. “My own part was to expose your embezzlement of company funds. We are a gang, us all, and not a penny should be pinched without repercussions. I would call you a dog’s dick, Vasilyev, but they get twice as hard as you’ll ever be. I’d call you, Song Jiang –”
“It’s a wonder that you’re still talking,” says Song Jiang, his hands folded gently, one over the other. He tips the edge of his narrow face to its side, and his dry, cracked, thin lips rise in a leer. The feeling inside him is more akin to catatonia than to fright; he feels his heart beat steadily, thump thump thump thump; each breath is drawn evenly; the tip of his dry slender tongue flickers out, sweeps over his waterless lips as if smelling the air; he finishes his thought, “When no one listens to you.”
The tips of Song Jiang’s lips curl ever higher, until the leer stretches beyond eccentricity into mania, a mocking contortion that causes José to blanch, bite his lip, and pull away.
“Song Jiang! Vasilyev!” It is a high voice. They cannot see the speaker, but they know the voice to be the Lieutenant’s. It rises from the washroom corridor. It is American accented, evoking memories of holdups in Mexico. “You have my guarantee that you will not be harmed. That is enough.”
“Is it?” calls Song Jiang.
The Lieutenant laughs high and long. “What choice do you have? You could kill José then die before firing another shot, or you could take my word, the gold, your lives, and be gone.”
“Song,” mutters Vasilyev, pointing the gun squarely at José’s chest. “They’ve got us cornered. I can even feel that wench, Petra Mueller, creeping in behind us. Probably she’s carrying that Derringer of hers. God only knows if she’s ever missed. There’s a short list of options that we’ve got and little time. What do you want do?”
Song Jiang shakes his head, whispers, “Better we take the gold. We’ll never make it alive.”
“Did you ever think that you would have?”
“I did like to think so.”
“Well.” Song Jiang looks over to the X, then back again to Vasilyev. They put their heads close together, “It’s now or never, Vasilyev. It’s been a good, long time working with you. I don’t even regret that hiccup in the Sierra Madres.”
“You damn well better not – it was your idea all along,” retorted Vasilyev.
“Well, you never did have a mind for planning.”
“Just play it cool while we walk over there. I can’t stand to see a man looking afraid.”
“I’ll just take this opportunity, then, to recommend that you look the other way.”
“Dammit, Lieutenant!” shouts Vasilyev, straightening up, “We’re going for the gold! Give the word to hold your fire!”
Silence, save Mozart.
“I said, ‘Say you’ll hold your fire!’”
Silence, save Mozart and the sound of guns cocking.
“Well, don’t speak all at once, you bastards!” shouts Vasilyev.
Song Jiang slides off the laminated wooden bench, stands in the Port Under the Sybaritic Stars of Yesteryear, feels the weight of the gang’s eyes resting on him. The bar feels as cold, barren, and empty as the Greenland dawn.
Mozart’s music sounds haunting, its light, airy tune reverberating as if through a crypt. Vasilyev gets out of the booth, and, slowly, slowly the two men walk across the space between the X and their booth. Sweat drips down Song Jiang’s and Vasilyev’s necks, down their spines. Song Jiang, a man of cunning and wickedness himself, recognizes most perceptively the deceit that is possible in others: the dishonest word, the Brutus Cassius style of support, the Machiavellian advances on another’s life, the sardonic pleasure of torture… The prolongation of la grande mort. As they walk, their boots fall heavily and noisily on the hard wooden floor. Vasilyev is feeling sober now, trying to do the impossible: to cover all the angles, cover every person in the bar, but Dylan’s Gang don’t even seem concerned. The way the fisherman observes the lobster in the trap is the way that they look at him. Their guns are at their waists. Their eyes watch him with detached interest. Carlos El Tornillo looks down and cups his hand around a flame as he lights up a cigarette, then he slips the lighter back in his pocket. Carlos isn’t even visibly armed…
Song Jiang and Vasilyev arrive at the X.
“Don’t shoot, we’re going to pick up the gold and go on our own way!”
“Why is it always an X that marks the spot?” Song Jiang mutters.
“How the hell can you ask that now?”
“I’m just curious. No need to bristle.”
As they lean down to pick up the sacks of gold, they cover themselves, keeping their eyes on the pirates. Above them, in the minstrel’s gallery, Octavio delves into his pocket, digs out a note, unfolds it, and sticks it to the top of the piano. Then, he gives the baby grand a strong push, bowling over the balusters; the piano catches one castor on a railing, and the baby grand topples and somersaults off the balcony. Vasilyev and Song Jiang look up too late. Their last sight is of the note, “I ♡ Mo-zart!” then the baby grand lands with a Falstaffian twang, springs bust, keys flip in every direction, wood splinters and collapses, and the men pass on to their different fates.
Vasilyev, tattooed with the three barred cross of the Russian Orthodox Church, believed in a reified heaven, a heaven that will come at the Final Judgement Day. On that Day, the body and the soul will be united in heaven, and those souls that have languished in Hades which have been prayed for and which have received the approval of God, will rise up and join the saints in the Kingdom of God. Throughout his life, Vasilyev believed his sins would weigh so heavily against him that his soul would fall to Hades when his soul was judged at the Particular Judgement. Sierra, an angel, sees Vasilyev’s soul transported from his body to an enormous courthouse in which God sits with scales and a ledger recounting the sins and good deeds of every person. Vasilyev’s soul is a nearly transparent red thing with the aspic qualities of a jellyfish, and it waits until God’s judgement is rendered. When this Particular Judgement comes, as Vasilyev believes that it will, his soul plummets to Hades to await the Final Judgement Day. It is Vasilyev’s belief that his mother, a pious woman now decrepit and hunchbacked, will pray for him, and with her prayers God will forgive him. By the nature of Vasilyev’s belief in his fate, that belief becomes the action. Sierra witnesses the rendering, standing off to the side, observing silently the events unfold before him. She feels nothing particular.
Then, a moment later, she witnesses the postmortem fate of Song Jiang.
Song Jiang, a Buddhist, experiences a different afterlife. Yet, like Vasilyev, Song’s postmortem experience is dictated by his own existentialism. Song Jiang felt prescient of his own end while he was alive. His consciousness of his own sins led him to think that he would become a Hungry Ghost after his passing – a being without physical substance, but with form. The Hungry Ghost often enough led a life marked by theft, murder, hatred. Song Jiang felt his ways were wicked, that his soul was corrupt. His belief of what kind of an end he would get determined the end that he has. He becomes a Hungry Ghost. He is a ghoul. Sierra witnesses Song’s transformation. His limbs become whisker thin, his stomach swollen and enlarged, his face ugly. He feels always that he is starving, but his throat’s passageway is too small to swallow even a grain of rice. When the piano falls upon his head, Song Jiang experiences a metamorphosis that is both painful and memorable. His body is reshaped, and he feels the painful cracking of his bones, the agonizing re-grafting of the skin, the traumatizing fashioning of his face into an ogre’s. Around him multiply figures, also Hungry Ghosts, a ballroom filled with spirits who compete viciously and physically with him over morsels of food, the way that prisoners might fight over dominance.
Captain Dylan steps out of the corridor, into the dim light of the ballroom, his boots crunching splinters of piano wood as he approaches the dead men and broken instrument. Dylan touches both hands to his chest, palms pressing against his breasts.
“Ah! Eine kleine Nachtmusik! May the substance of your blessed sprits pass into me as nourishment. May your lives be remembered in a kind light, and may our own actions tonight be forgiven. May your hopes for the afterlife be fulfilled. May what is empty within me, be fulfilled by you. What is dead without, is life within! Vámonos!”