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Fiction by Mildred Pond

The Stowaway - page 13

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Argentina. If I reported him to the cynical communist crew sloppily running the ship, they’d lock him up, haul him back to France, and what might happen to him there filled me with a fierce anxiety I couldn’t explain to myself. Over the years this same feverish disquiet occasionally came over me. Hilda, observing my distress, once called it a “secret complex. It makes you both odd and mysterious, Roger.” To squelch the churning fear at the pit of my stomach, a terrible hopelessness, I sometimes took on risks, just as I was now, with my stowaway. Of one thing I was certain: Turning Schmidt in was out of the question. What was far less clear was my baseless loyalty to him. I asked the sullen deck steward, tipping him generously, to bring me some breakfast near the ship’s stern where I had first seen Schmidt hoist himself inside his lifeboat. The sun was already broiling; Schmidt was surely stifling, his wounded foot festering and he was probably faint from hunger again. Let him wait, I thought, let his foot wait. An hour more would weaken his will, and I would not allow him to pry me with questions. I settled into my chair, bit into a croissant and sipped my coffee. The deck stewards, and most of the crew had left, and probably all the passengers. The truth was that Schmidt, all frail, five foot eight inches of him, fasci-nated me. More precisely, his precarious statelessness obsessed me. He had no provable, acceptable past, no guaranteed passage anywhere, only his shrewd, desperate wits, not to mention his still mysterious origins. If Jewish, he might have settled in Israel by now. Hadn’t he said he’d wanted to go there? Hilda had said to me once, “I don’t know why I’m confessing this to you, darling. Maybe it’s because you listen so attentively.” This was particularly true whenever I traveled aboard trains, buses or ships; strangers willingly revealed to me their secrets. I was never an entirely passive listener, usually ingesting their confessions whole, though often it took years for me to absorb the stories that had provided relief, even expiation to the teller. Schmidt was different: I was already hooked, and I still knew nothing. Around noon, when the skeletal crew would be eating lunch, I took a roundabout walk along several decks, and then climbed up to the lifeboats.