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Fiction by Mildred Pond

The Stowaway

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The wide sweep of the scene, that jolt of panic I felt, is still indelible in my mind after so many years. Not just the receding lights of Marseilles as the ship pulled free of the quay, but my fellow passengers leaning over the rear deck’s railing, calling their sad or overly gay goodbyes, then the sudden, sharp whistle from the captain’s bridge behind me, and -- permeating it all -- the haunting blare from the single giant smokestack signaling departure. But principally, engraved on that scene, is the image of what I unexpectedly saw on the upper deck behind the steward’s shoulder as he brought me the gimlet I’d ordered: a barefooted man in a white shirt and dark suit, desperately ripping off a corner of one of the lifeboat’s canvas tops and scrambling inside. If I hadn’t looked up just then, would he have made it undetected all the way to Yokohama, our final destination? Or slipped off the battered old French ocean liner during one of many scheduled stops – Port Said, Djibouti, Saigon, Hong Kong, and others – on the way to my new post, Japan? Since childhood, in that moment of departure, I’d always felt a churning sense of dread, as if an inner mooring was ripped loose, and I was falling into nothing. I’d experienced it so many times, when a train’s clanging slow motion departure began, or an automobile crammed with friends pulled away. Sometimes it was just a wave of the hand, someone calling "goodbye". So my heart was already racing before I even saw the desperate man, but curiously – and I felt this too, strongly – I was aware that I’d joined with the emaciated stowaway’s desperate plan, whatever that might be. I sipped my drink, remembering my doctor’s comment at my last post, the one I’d just left, Dakar. “You, liquor and hot weather don’t mix, Roger. Keep it down to two drinks and you’ll be fine.” The excitement, the strange fear of leaving solid land, my mysterious debilitating fever was the last thing on my mind. The stowaway’s scramble along the upper deck, his hoisting himself into the lifeboat, desperate motions of a man at the end of his rope, were a small part of a longer journey, whose end he might never see. He knew it, and I knew it. My hand shook as I opened my notebook, in which I habitually jotted down insights into new situations. I wrote: “Have just looked into the face of death.” I’d turned thirty-two recently, and was hardly prescient about much in those days. But I didn’t accept events at random or on their surface either. I hoped that no one else, passenger or crewmember, had seen the frantic man, and resolved to take him some food when it was safely dark.