Although she’d heard all the familiar warnings about not rushing to judgment with people, experience had taught Rahel that her five-second conclusions were nearly inerrant. Which means that when the Beetons checked into their budget room on the Cormorant Deck with their mismatched luggage—booze brought from home to avoid paying for piña coladas at the midnight buffet spilling out past the broken zippers—she didn’t doubt any of her guesses about them. They were in debt and had gotten in more debt to spend six days and five nights on board The Jamaica Mon. The kids were at home with parents—hers, probably—and the parents weren’t too thrilled to be gang-pressed into babysitting for a week while the people who owed them money went off to spend more. The Beetons were running from trouble into more trouble, but hoped to forget about all of it for a while on a cruise.
Rahel could have guessed more about them, but she stopped there. It wasn’t her job to figure out the problems of passengers and it wasn’t her job to save anyone. Lord knows, whatever problems the Beetons had, they were nothing compared to what Rahel had been through. And it was a good bet nearly everything the Beetons faced was something they’d gotten themselves into. None of it was her concern. Rahel had one job. She was on the ship to make the best animal sculptures out of towels of anyone in the industry.
She’d started making them back when she was a maid on the Shearwater Deck: the only level lower and more cut-rate than the Cormorant. Shearwater was for college students who crammed in eight to a room and never tipped. But if she folded a towel into a swan, or an elephant, or a monkey, she occasionally got a couple of wrinkled one dollar bills left on a pillow at the end of their stay.
Her roommate Selam had taught Rahel the basics of making simple animals, but Rahel soon surpassed her mentor. She stayed up nights with stacks of towels piled to the ceiling on her bed, their bleached scent filling the small cabin. Selam watched and emailed her kids while Rahel drew blueprints for entire towel-based menageries. Soon, she didn’t even need to sketch out her ideas. She’d touch the fabric, still warm from the giant turbine-like dryers in the bowels of the ship, and she’d know how to make what she saw in her head come to life.
She made unicorns battling dragons. She made mermaids riding dolphins. She made Noah’s Ark once, but while it was impressive in scale, Rahel didn’t think it had the emotional impact more focused works provided. Her most famous work—the one that got the most mentions by passengers on their #jamaicamon social media posts—was a small nativity scene she put out on the pool deck. It was strange how popular the subject was on a ship where most everyone seemed to be trying to forget what they learned in church, but it was always a smash.
She no longer cleaned toilets with toothbrushes left behind by passengers, or folded linens still hot enough to burn her forearms, or scrubbed floors free of dried blood and suntan lotion, urine and booze. Rahel had assistants to do all that. Her job was to make towel sculptures and get The Jamaica Mon trending. Her assistants were strictly instructed to let Rahel pick up the tips left on beds and nightstands. It was up to her how to share the proceeds. All in all, she had it easier on the ship that just about anyone, except for maybe Akoni, who played the steel drum by the pool.
The Beetons weren’t her responsibility, but Rahel saw no reason to withhold what comfort she could give. They might not be paying a smuggler, who was ripping Rahel off to move her cousin out of Ethiopia, through Sudan and Libya and into Italy where a restaurant job awaited him, but everyone had their problems. She made them a family of rabbits with a burrow, a stream, and a hill made out of pillows for them to play on. It seemed cheery to her.
Rahel was shocked the morning after The Jamaica Mon set out from Miami to see the note on the Beetons’ pillow.
Dear Jamaica Mon Staff,
Thank you very much for the towel animals you made for us yesterday. My wife, Ginny, particularly liked them, and wanted me to give you a tip. Unfortunately, Ginny is often asking me to spend money we don’t have and that’s true in this case as well. We nearly maxed out our cards to book this trip and, like I tried to tell her, it’s not really as all-inclusive as it claims. We can’t even afford the day trip to Nassau today. We’ll be watching from the ship as everyone else goes ashore to have fun. Plus, the rabbits looked like a family, and that reminded Ginny of how sad she is to be gone from the kids and reminded me how much her parents hate me and that they’re probably telling the kids how bad I am. Since we’ll probably end up divorced like every couple with money troubles this bad does, I don’t need the kids thinking I’m the bad guy. In short, although your hard work is appreciated and admired, I am unable to remunerate you for it in the manner you deserve and so I ask you please to not make further animal sculptures from towels for us for the remainder of our stay.
Rahel was dismayed but not defeated. A first cruise could be a lot to take in. For people who didn’t like sharing a table, forced conversation with strangers, or the expectation to be happy all the time, it could be draining. Once, a European man on a cruise after the death of his wife, took all of Rahel’s animals apart on the first day, knotted the towels into one long rope, then twisted the rope into a noose and left it hanging in his shower. The next day, Rahel had made him a pastoral scene of a deer taking a drink from a pool beneath a waterfall. By the end of the week, the man had found his second wife and booked another cruise.
She made the Beetons an eagle, its wings spread as if it were rising to the skies again after having been trapped in a cage for a long time. Perhaps it would inspire the Beetons to believe they could overcome their troubles. Next to the eagle, she added a note: “Art and good thoughts are always free.” Maybe a gesture of kindness would go a long way for the Beetons.
But the morning after, when she went to collect the towels from the day before, there was another note:
Dear Jamaica Mon Towel Artist,
I call you an artist and I mean it without a trace of irony attached to the term. You have a job to do and you clearly take pride in your work, as anyone should. I wouldn’t hesitate to call the sandwich makers at Subway sandwich artists, as their marketing would have it, if they took their jobs as seriously as you obviously do. So I hope I can appeal to you, as an artist, for understanding.
What I cared about most in life was being a husband and father. I wanted to be like my parents, to provide for my family and help them to be happy. But I’ve failed at it, which is sort of to me what failing as an artist would be like for you. I started off okay, but for the first few years, I could never say no to Ginny. Then, I had to start saying no all the time, which she didn’t know how to take, so we’ve had a rocky few years. I end up giving in sometimes in the worst ways, which puts us in a much bigger mess and means I have to start saying no even more. Like yesterday. She was so depressed about staying on the boat that we went on the day trip after all, and now we’re going to be overdrawn this month. So I really can’t afford to give you a tip, though you clearly deserve it.
In short, I have failed. I intend to do what people do when they know they’ve failed. I intend to give up. I have a lot of life insurance, and I’m planning to have an accident near the end of the cruise that will result in me falling over the edge and drowning. Until then, I don’t want to think about happy things like bunnies and birds. I don’t want to feel hope. I have a job to do to save my family, and I intend to do it. I hope I’m as good at this last job as you clearly are at yours.
When Rahel didn’t know what to do, she usually went to see Akoni. He was out playing his first set by the main pool. Akoni looked like a hybrid of Caribbean stereotypes; a look he had carefully cultivated. He had dreadlocks, a tri-colored rasta cap, and a scraggly beard. He wore a white collared shirt and white pants with sandals. His toes were neatly manicured—which she always thought might give away that he was actually a highly educated man who’d left his job as a professor to take money from rich white people—but as Akoni predicted, nobody ever noticed. They were too happy drinking, eating, and doing cannonballs to impress the people they’d just met. Most of all, they were happy from getting stoned off the weed Akoni scored them.
It was just normal weed Akoni got from a guy in Miami, but he charged double what he paid for it, and everyone, assuming it was the “real shit” because a Rastafarian playing a steel drum had given it to them, swore it was the best they’d ever had.
“Dis song called ‘Ware und Geld,’ mon,” he told the passengers. “Dis an old song me mother teach me back in Jamaica.” He winked at Rahel, who knew that every song he played was called “Ware und Geld.” The passengers thought he must be singing in some tribal language none of them knew, but in fact, he was always singing passages from Das Kapital in the original German. He told her he enjoyed singing to bourgeois capitalists about the impending death of capitalism while they made him rich. He enjoyed it so much, he actually was happy enough to fake his way through being the Rastafarian wizard-of-chill they wanted him to be. At the opening bars, a couple of senior citizen ladies tried some kind of shaking dance Rahel found terrifying.
Akoni was the only person on The Jamaica Mon who enjoyed more favor from the Governors of the ship than Rahel did. While she got the ship to trend from the photos passengers took of her towel art, Akoni was the reason they chose the ship in the first place. Officially, the Governors did not condone the use of cannabis among passengers. But on every website where past customers rated their experiences and prospective customers sought advice, The Jamaica Mon was recommended as a party boat. It was a place to get stoned and fuck people you’d just met. It was fucking fun as hell and nobody on the boat was looking to stop you from having a good time. The Jamaica Mon’s Governors neither encouraged the rumors nor went out of their way to stop them, but they all knew the rumors about the ship’s liberal policies on weed were why they sold out every time the ship set out from Miami. This made Akoni, the main supplier, untouchable. It’s why he was allowed to play his music his way.
She had to wait while his song went on and on, which was a good chance for her to get her daily “bump-ins” done. The Governors wanted each employee of The Jamaica Mon to pretend to be relaxing and to “bump-in” to the passengers they served a couple of times a day. It gave the passengers the feeling that the crew was enjoying the cruise nearly as much as they were, alleviating any feelings of guilt after having a good time eating, boozing, smoking, and fucking while fifteen hundred Ethiopians, Haitians, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Eritreans, Kenyans, Ugandans, Syrians, Iraqis, Ukrainians, and Russians worked twelve-hour days in their midst. The Governors liked for the crew to do a bump-in while carrying a drink, preferably one with an umbrella in it. She picked up her standard bump-in mocktail from Idris at the poolside bar—the Governors liked to have Muslims manning the bars because there was less chance of them stealing the booze—and walked around the pool, looking for any passengers she recognized.
She found the Wilsons from Iowa and did her best to seem relaxed, casual, and off-duty. Mr. Wilson said his back still hurt from the flight two days ago. Rahel recommended they try massages or yoga lessons, two activities that carried additional fees. Meanwhile Akoni wailed away at some awful song that sounded like “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid crossed with a calypso version of “Another One Bites the Dust.” In between the German words everyone assumed were some Jamaican patois, Akoni let out some ejaculation that fit their expectations:
der produktionsprozess des kapitals . . . ayyy-yo! . . . von der mehr oder minder entwickelten . . . ay, mon! . . . wird Bereicherungsmittel des einzelnen Kapitalisten . . . ooh, ya, ya, ya . . .
Splashes came from the pool as the college kids from the Shearwater Deck started whatever mating ritual kids like them did in pools; dunking each other under, driving a pile of water with a wide sweep of the arm into someone’s face, and various games of chicken with one pair of tits bursting out of a bikini top perched on top of a pair of brawny, sunburnt shoulders, going at it against another pair of tits and shoulders, the girls on top trying to push each other—acting vaguely bi-curious—and hold a drink in a plastic cup all at the same time. This particular version of the chicken game took place in the middle of the remains of a spinach frittata someone had dropped in the pool. One girl picked up some soggy green mess and threw it at the other.
A little further off, mothers called up encouragement to their children who’d rather be home playing video games as they dragged themselves reluctantly up the rock climbing wall overlooking the pool. One boy was stuck, refusing to climb up higher or let go so they could bring him back down.
As soon as Rahel extricated herself from the Wilsons of Iowa, Akoni finished his set and motioned for her to join him in the shade beneath his canopy. He put his bare feet up on a deck chair, flaunting the smooth soles. His parents had both been school teachers in Boca Raton. Among other colleges he’d attended, he’d gone to Cornell. He was like a middle class Batman; only he used his privilege to get rich and rescue cruise passengers from their own boring selves.
Rahel told Akoni about the Beetons. He listened attentively, except for the two times business interrupted. One of the passengers paid with a credit card. Akoni had the app to take his payment on his phone.
“Sorry, go on,” he said, after taking the second payment. “You were saying this cracker’s gonna jump? God, what’s it been? Five months since the last one? He’s gonna cause another retraining on how to stop a jumper. What a pain. So selfish.”
“He’s having a hard time,” she said.
“So, what’s that to you?”
“The Bible doesn’t say we should only help poor people, Akoni.”
“You seem to think it says they’re the only people we should help.”
A scream came from the pool. Someone had thrown a candy bar in and now everyone was running from it like it was shit. This gag happened at least once a voyage.
“So you think I should do nothing then?”
“You can report it to the Governors if you want,” he said. “Just don’t go thinking it’s up to you to fix these people. You’re not their magical negro. Or negress, in this case.”
Akoni always talked about the idea of the magical negro as though it were a bad thing. A black, working class person who emerges from the shadows to fix the problems of rich white people. A person with no dreams of her own, just there to make things better for white people. But it actually sounded kind of nice to Rahel, like a kind of superpower. If she could be gifted with the knowledge of how to help people with their problems, she’d take it. It wasn’t the fault of people like the Beetons that they’d never heard of things like obstetric fistula, couldn’t imagine a world where people suffered from such things. They were entitled to their problems, too.
“Well, thanks for your advice, Akoni,” she said, getting up to start on the hundreds of versions of Swan Lake she had planned for that day.
“You going to ignore my advice again?”
“I always do. That’s why I value your opinion so much. I always know I can do the opposite.”
Rahel spent the next six hours down below in “The Genesis Room,” as her studio was called. The creations she made were far too elaborate to make room-by-room during the morning clean-up. They required hours. So the ship had converted an old disco ballroom into her workshop. The best part of her day were the hours she spent there, undisturbed except for the occasional drop-off of new towels. She built the display for one room, set it in a tray which would be carried out the next morning, then repeated it until she ran out of towels. She couldn’t do all thousand rooms, of course, but she could do a lot of them.
The starboard side of the room was entirely lined with tables on which she placed the trays. Each table had a sign on it. There was a sign for each deck: Cormorant, Shearwater, Albatross, Tern, and Penguin. The trays, in turn, had signs with room descriptions: Light-Mantled Albatross Room, Laysan Albatross Room, Black-Browed Albatross Room, etc.
Those with discerning eyes could make out a second group of symbols on each sign. They weren’t an alphabet of any language spoken except on The Jamaica Mon. When the ship first set to sea, the mayor of Miami breaking a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut across her bow, the Governors had devised a system of naming the decks and rooms they thought would be romantic. Each deck was named for a type of oceanic bird and each room on that deck was named for a different species of that general type. Perhaps a few passengers got a hoot out of staying in the Laughing Gull Room. Maybe a few wondered if there was something ominous about spending a few nights in the Least Tern Room. But whatever the guests felt, the staff was eternally bewildered about where the rooms were. It was nearly impossible to bring room service or fix a sink in a timely manner because it took half an hour to find the room.
So the staff developed a secret system of ciphers and codes. They painted the codes on all the walls throughout the ship, right beneath the signs announcing the bird names. It took a couple of days for each crew member to learn the system, but it was much easier than trying to figure out where the Black Skimmer Room was. Since it increased efficiency, the Governors looked the other way, just as long as the crew kept their secret numbering system encrypted from the guests.
Swan Lake was impressive when it was all done, but for Rahel, it was the least interesting day of the week. Thousands of swans, twisted in more or less the same way over and over, even if some were larger or smaller or scarier or prettier than others. She had a special stack of black towels. Usually, she didn’t like to resort to cheap tricks like color. A true towel folding artist should be able to create all her effects with just white towels, she thought, but for this display, she allowed herself to cheat a little. It was Swan Lake. It needed a black swan.
As she folded, she wondered about the Beetons. Why would Scott have written about his plans if he didn’t want to be stopped? Surely, this was a cry for help. Generally, the Governors wanted the staff to stay out of the lives of passengers. There were some things going on that passengers wanted to believe nobody noticed. There were couples swapping partners, both with and without the knowledge and consent of the people they’d arrived with. There were orgies with all kinds of drugs, especially among the senior citizens. There were women stumbling off to rooms on the arms of men when the women had been served well past the possibility of consent. It’s what they came to The Jamaica Mon for, though. The psychological law of the sea was stronger than the rule Vegas promised about things done there staying there. On The Jamaica Mon, nothing done in international waters counted.
But Rahel didn’t think she could live with herself if a man killed himself and she didn’t do anything to stop it. When she’d gotten pregnant at fourteen without meaning to, her mother had told her to end the pregnancy. Ethiopia had just changed the laws. If you were a child yourself, you didn’t have to have a child anymore. But Rahel already thought of the fetus as Tsegay, the boy he would become. She couldn’t.
She would go to see the Governors. They would know how to handle it.
Rahel told the receptionist why she was there. She didn’t give too many details. She thought the Governors would expect discretion from her, even with their own receptionist. The receptionist was a young man, on the border between thin and emaciated. He clacked away on a keyboard. Occasionally, he drank from a mug. It was one of The Jamaica Mon mugs from the gift shop. It said “Ya, Mon!” over an aerial photo of the ship. When he tipped the mug to his lips, something wafted toward Rahel, who sat quietly six feet from his desk. It wasn’t quite unpleasant, but it wasn’t earthy or floral. More like metal.
Time wore on as she waited. The door behind the receptionist to the Governors opened every now and again, with some equally thin functionary scurrying off to complete an errand the Governors had sent him to do or arriving with news from the ship. The sounds of a language Rahel didn’t know drifted out of the chamber and then died again when the door closed. The clacking became deafening, like he was trying to break the keys. She’d been there over an hour when he suddenly greeted her sharply.
“Yes?” Rahel said, but the receptionist just put up an index finger toward her and wrapped the other hand around his head to press his headset into his ear. He had apparently received a call.
From what she could understand on her end, he was talking to a journalist. The journalist must have been asking questions about the listeria outbreak that had made hundreds sick on another cruise ship. He kept his voice even throughout, avoiding even a hint of defensiveness. He was polite, but not warm:
“Food safety is always a top priority here on The Jamaica Mon. We follow every industry recommendation to the letter, and often exceed what is expected. That’s why we have never had an outbreak on the ship. We are currently offering a twenty percent discount to passengers who were affected by the unfortunate food poisoning incident onboard our competitor’s ship if they book now. This is their chance to switch from Mermaid Cruises to us and see The Jamaica Mon difference. Other passengers have noticed the difference. We’ve been so in demand, we are launching a second ship, Cool Runnings, in September.”
Rahel stopped paying attention. From what she’d heard from the kitchen staff, it was no wonder they’d never had an incident with tainted food. Pedro, the head chef, was uncompromising about sanitation. He wouldn’t even let his staff go to certain parts of the ship for fear they’d track something in behind them.
“Don’t you have some place to go?”
Rahel didn’t respond.
“Excuse me? Didn’t you hear me?” The receptionist must have ended his call and was talking to her now.
“Someplace to go? I’m here to talk to the Governors. It’s important. It’s about a passenger I think is in trouble.”
“I’m sorry. The Governors are in a very important meeting and can’t be disturbed. If this is a matter of life and death, the passenger should go to the ship’s infirmary.”
“I don’t think they have the right kind of doctor there for him,” she said. “His body isn’t sick.”
“If it’s something more than a painkiller or an antibiotic can cure, then your passenger will need to go home and consult his regular physician. We’re here to give people a good time. Now, don’t you have some place to go?”
“I did my animals for the day,” Rahel said.
“I mean Titanic Night. You should be there already.”
Oh, God, she thought. Not another Titanic Night. The receptionist slid the door to the Governor’s room open silently, slipped his wisp of a body through the crack he’d created, and disappeared inside.
Titanic Night didn’t appear on any of the brochures they handed out to passengers when they boarded. It wasn’t an official activity. But it was the activity that got the most participation by far. Certain crew members, usually the ones who brought drinks poolside or to the rooms, were assigned to whisper to passengers about a secret party, one held by the working people of The Jamaica Mon. The party was below and late at night. Each passenger was to think they were one of the few invited. They were Rose and Jack was getting them into the big working class party. The passenger getting the “secret” believed that he, unique among the members of the ship, had demonstrated the common touch. He had shown himself to be a person who wouldn’t look down on the simple customs of the folks below deck. Everyone believed the party would be the wildest and the most uninhibited and that they would be one of the few guests to experience it. Guests were even given the secret sign on the wall outside to the room, the one the crew used to tell where things really were.
Anyone not working elsewhere in the evenings was required to participate. That meant wear something native to wherever you were from, and dancing something “ethnic” that would look convincing. Rahel didn’t dance well, and she didn’t have time to put her hair into a Sheruba. But it didn’t matter. Passengers were so wide-eyed to get their look at how the other half lived, she could twerk or square dance and they’d still eat it up.
The music was so loud when Rahel entered the Prole Room, it felt like her teeth were coming loose. She’d never had the best teeth. A few were missing in the back and whatever they were playing seemed ready to knock out a few more. It was hard to tell crew from passenger; many guests had borrowed bits of the uniforms of the workers and were wearing them proudly. Some Ukrainians were leading a conga line of squat-kick Hopak dancers, a few of whom had passed out from the effort. One man was lying on the floor with blood coming from his head, which seemed only to convince those around him that the party must really be exciting. Rahel tried to clap along to the music, but she was exhausted. So many towels. Her hands felt irritated, even as calloused as they had become over the years of sliding fabric between her fingers.
A shout went up from one corner. They were shooting dice and something important must have happened. She saw Sirak gathering up a pile of money, handing a few of the bills to a tall young man. Next to the winner was a dejected, older man. It took a minute through the haze, but Rahel could see it was Mr. Beeton. Sirak called for the next bets, but Mr. Beeton shook his head, downed a shot of something clear from the table, and left the room. As he left, he took off somebody’s uniform vest and dropped it on a chair.
Rahel tried to follow him, but the music changed. It was a Habesha number by Goitom Habteselassie she herself had picked for its awful cheerfulness and its annoying repetition. Netsella, an Eritrean who worked in lost and found, grabbed Rahel by the hand and dragged her to the center of the room. It was time for the Habesha crew from Ethiopia and Eritrea to dance for the sake of the passengers. Netsella ululated, “ulululululululu,” and put her hands on the hips of the Habesha in front of her. Hafte from maintenance went to the center of the circle of dancers that had formed and shook his torso in jerky motions.
Rahel started to sneak off, but Netsella pulled her back. “Come on, haftey,” she said. “Just one dance and then we’ve done our job.”
But one dance when it was a Habesha song was no three-minute task. The song looped through endless versions of the same refrain, dotted with the krar, the saxophone, the washint and what seemed like a hundred drum solos. Rahel had to go to the middle of the circle three different times. It had been over ten minutes. Scott might be at the bottom of the Caribbean by now. At last, a group of passengers still standing on two feet crashed the circle. Each tried to imitate the chest-shaking gyrations they’d seen, and several of the women let out ululations of their own. The room smelled like pot and hot skin. Rahel ran out of the room while Habtom was still singing and the drum was still going around and around the same beat. Ethiopian music was kind of like working on a cruise ship; a never ending cycle where you kind of always felt like you’d heard this one before.
She ran past the Russians playing ambulance in the hall, hauling those who had passed out off to their rooms.
“Which room is this asshole in?” She heard one ask.
“Mollymawk,” the man answered faintly as he leaned on his rescuer.
“Where the fuck is that?”
Rahel pushed her way through a forest of passengers draped inertly over the shoulders of crew members hauling them away. She saw the remnants of vomit on their lips, the patches of red and white on the backs of their necks where they’d missed with the sunscreen. One blasted her with his breath and she put her hand over her nose and mouth to hold down her own retching. She came out onto the deck by the shortest way possible and tried to guess where Scott might have gone. If he had been looking for a secluded spot, he’d have gone to the crocodile’s head. That was directly above the giant embossed painting of the Jamaican coat of arms across the side of the ship; the one with the half-dressed natives, pineapples on a shield, and the motto that said, “out of many, one people.” There wasn’t much lighting there.
Rahel sprinted through the casino, where the few seniors too infirm for the Titanic night down below were whiling away the night. Someone asked her to fill his drink, but she pretended not to hear and kept on running.
She weaved in and out of wheelchairs and crew mopping the floor. When she came back out from the casino onto the deck, she had to be careful not to trip over passengers who had given up on walking back to their rooms and laid down on the deck. She hurdled one.
Maybe a cruise ship wasn’t always the ideal place to see the best side of people, but she believed they had a best side. At home, perhaps, some of them worked in non-profits trying to develop a newer, less toxic plastic. Maybe somebody had adopted children who needed homes. She had met a passenger before who was an actual Nobel winner. He’d designed a pre-packaged, modular kit for a solar-powered well. Anyone anywhere could follow the simple directions and install it in a couple of days. He’d given the patent to an aid agency. The prize money for the Nobel was almost the only money he’d ever made off it. He’d also tried to grab Rahel’s ass, but the bad things you do shouldn’t cancel out the good ones. All people were worth something. All people were worth trying to save.
She found Scott gazing out at the moon, his elbows resting on the railing, the hands that extended off into the space beyond holding on to one another. She scraped her feet so he could hear her coming, but he didn’t look. He pulled one hand back in and rubbed his eyes.
“So you found me,” he said.
“Yes, I found you.”
He kept looking at the moon. He wore khaki cargo shorts—the shirt everyone who went to Nassau came back with—and Birkenstocks. Nothing suggested he felt any hurry about what was going to happen.
“You don’t have to do this,” Rahel said to him softly.
“I’m afraid I do.”
“If you jump in, I’ll sound the alarm. They’ll just pull you out.”
“I’ll be dead before they can rescue me. I’m a terrible swimmer.”
Rahel racked her brain for the words that would keep him dry and on this side of the railing. What from her past would make sense to him? She couldn’t talk about her life. Compared to everything he likely knew about Ethiopia, it was all too impossibly sad, too terrifyingly unfair. She’d start talking and his mind would want to switch the channel, just like anyone who saw starving children in Africa did. A story like hers wouldn’t inspire someone like him. It would just make him feel worse about how much his own problems were beating him up.
First world problems. That’s what she’d heard Akoni call them. But surely, the people with first world problems knew they shared a world with people like Rahel. They knew that the people who served them food and cleaned up after them got emails from their kids asking for another three thousand dollars by next week or the authorities would have him deported back to Ethiopia. They must know that the best she could hope for was to get him on a leaky boat that would try to cross the Mediterranean from Libya into Europe, where he would find a cousin who owned a restaurant, live and work underground until he made enough to buy a visa. But how was it supposed to make anyone feel better to know the world was full of problems much worse than their own?
“When I first started folding towels,” she said, “I wasn’t any good at it.”
He kept staring at the moon.
“I couldn’t even make a monkey or a horse. And I was very worried because my boss was getting angry with me. ‘Why can’t you even learn something simple like a monkey?’ He asked me. So I came out here one night and I leaned against the railing, just like you’re doing now, wondering what I was going to do.”
She wondered if he was buying any of this, but at least it looked like he was listening.
“And you know what happened? The sea, it talked to me. I don’t know how to explain it. I was just standing there, feeling sorry for myself, and the sea, it came and talked to me. And in my mind, the sea took shape, and it folded itself into a dolphin. And I knew how to make my first towel animal. From then on, I’ve just known. Nobody has to show me anything. It’s there inside me. If you listen, the sea holds all the answers.”
Scott made no movement right away, but slowly, she saw his head start to nod. A soft sound like laughter came from him. He pushed off the railing with his elbows and turned to her.
“You really are an artist.”
She reached out to take hold of his arm. She wanted to pull him away from the railing and back into the interior of the ship. If she got him to his room, maybe the worst of it would be past him. He caught her hand as she reached out to him.
“You’re different from Ginny,” he said. She tried to pull her hand back, but he held tightly to her, almost desperately, like she was a life preserver in the middle of the wide, open sea. “She doesn’t understand any of the responsibilities I have. She doesn’t want to know how much trouble we’re in. But you understand trouble. You don’t run from it.”
She was sensing trouble now and would have ran if she could.
“You could help me,” he said. “I knew it from the moment I saw you and the work you do.”
“You asked me not to make any more, if I remember.”
He laughed. “That’s true, that’s true. But you kept doing it, anyway.”
“It’s my job,” she said.
“Yes, it is. And you do it so well.”
She didn’t want to pull hard away from him. From experience, showing fear had a tendency to trigger something in men when they wanted to show affection.
“Won’t your wife be looking for you?”
“She’s asleep. We’re doing the day trip again tomorrow and she wanted to be rested for it. I thought I’d try to win a few bucks to bail us out, but as you can see, I just lost even more. But hey, there’s always one more emergency credit card to pull out.”
“There’s no day trip tomorrow.”
“No. We’re passing Haiti. Nobody wants to go there.”
He nodded as though he understood what she meant, as though the reality of Haiti could register with anything he knew. Scott drew close, put his arms around Rahel. He whispered into her ear.
“I knew you’d find me. I knew you’d know the answers.”
Rahel didn’t move. She looked beyond Scott’s shoulder into the dark and undulating surface of the water. She heard a cry from above, some fowl riding along on the ship saying something to part of the flock. For once, the sea really did seem to whisper an answer to her.
“If you give me two days, I’ll show you all the answers you need to know,” she said. She held him by both his shoulders and looked up into his face; his three-day beard and chapped lips. Even in the dark, the skin of his eyelids glowed, the only part that hadn’t gotten sunburned on Nassau.
It wasn’t a promise, but it was close enough to a promise that Scott could see. He let her go.
Rahel got the Governors to go along with it like she knew she would. She would work for two days, then reveal her grand work in the grand ballroom after the formal dinner with the captain on the last night of the cruise. The ship would treat it like an exclusive opening at a studio in Manhattan: the towel savant from Ethiopia revealing her great masterpiece sculpture in cotton.
The design in her head defied not just the mechanics of how the fabric of towels behaved, but the laws of physics themselves. Rahel had been touched by the magic of the sea, and now its magic wove its way through everything she touched. Her hands and eyes followed the laws of another world, one only she saw. When she went to sleep at last the first night beside Selam, she saw Selam make a sign to ward off the evil eye. Anyone with an eye for the spiritual world could see Rahel had been touched, whether by madness or wisdom.
There was wine and cheese on the night her work debuted, and although the passengers had just polished off surf and turf and champagne for dinner, they put a dent in the platters and glasses on the tables. The Governors had advertised the event broadly, even brazenly, promising it would be an event nobody would ever forget. “Bring your phones! This will be the pic you post that will make all your friends wish they had been where you were!”
Rahel wore a Habesha kemis and put her hair in albasso: long rolls that had the effect of gull’s wings on the sides of her head. She whitened her teeth with strips she got from Akoni.
“What do you have planned?” he asked her. “You’ve never used these before.”
“Nothing that hasn’t been done before,” she said. “Just something old in a new skin.”
Scott was at the unveiling. As was Ginny. Her face was peeling and she’d gained five pounds since the start of the week, but she seemed happy. She’d gotten what she wanted out of the cruise. If he’d told her a reckoning was coming when they got home, she was able to separate that from the fun she was having now. Akoni’s band in their reggae zip-up jackets joined the dance hall band in their tuxedos. They did orchestral arrangements of pop tunes people in their forties and fifties were likely to enjoy: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Journey, and Johnny Cash. They were in the middle of “When the Man Comes Around” when the emcee cut them off.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the big moment you’ve all been waiting for. Get those clicking fingers ready to go, because when we count down, you’re going to want to catch this.”
Rahel stood to the side of the stage, alone. She watched the passengers gathered in the ballroom like a hundred others she’d seen before. She knew every person was different, each with their own story to tell, but stories did tend to mimic other stories, at least in their broad outlines.
“Five, four, three, two, . . .” A great sheet fell from the ceiling and Rahel’s work descended. It seemed to float in the air. One of the passengers turned to the person next to her and mouthed something, maybe, “How are they doing that?” but otherwise the ballroom was silent.
First came the white horse. It was simple, needing no color. Its rider held a hunting bow she had starched into an arc. A crown descended from the ceiling and fell upon the rider’s head, after which he seemed to turn menacingly in the direction of the people near the Roquefort.
Next came the red horse. She had been forced to use colored fabrics; there was no other way to signify what the second horse meant. But she had been sparing, using only small patches woven into the mane. The small tufts of red seemed somehow more menacing when surrounded by all the sparkling white, an effect amplified when the rider pulled its sword from its sheath.
The Governors at the table surrounded in darkness just beyond the spotlights began to murmur. Shouts of accusation drifted from the gloom: Whose idea was this? A woman made a noise, although it wasn’t clear if it was alarm or surprise.
The black horse followed. It was actually made of white towels, but Rahel had rigged it so that it somehow sucked in light rather than reflecting it, and it loomed in the air above the bar, a menace and a shadow. Some passengers began to move toward the door. One picked up a wine bottle from the bar, but the rider upon the horse turned, holding the scales of justice in his hands, and the passenger set the bottle down.
When Death on her pale horse at last dove from the ceiling, it moved more like a bird of prey than a horse. The ears were pinned back to the mane to ease the drive through the wind. A single scream disturbed the quiet. As if a spell had been broken, the passengers burst into panic, running for the exits. They turned over the tables. Someone threw a bottle of champagne wildly at the horses, but it sailed on by and came to land in the upturned bell of a trumpet the band had left on the stage. Some tried to escape through the curtains behind the stage, only to realize there was no door to the outside behind them, so they had to come back out into the middle of the floor where they ran into a crosscurrent of passengers, who had given up trying to make it to the exits, now headed in the other direction.
The Governors disappeared from their table, but where they had gone, Rahel could not tell. They were mixed in with the passengers now, running uselessly from one wall to another while so many had fallen, fighting one another to get out. The doorway was hopelessly clogged with bodies. Each governor had been wearing their sashes at the table, but Rahel could see several had been thrown to the floor and were being trampled beneath Casco Bay boat shoes now.
Rahel did not worry. There would be a few sprained ankles and broken fingers that got stepped on, but she had created only a simulacra of the judgment to come, not a portal to the judgment itself. She hadn’t created a panic that would result in any deaths, at least not any immediate ones. In fact, she suspected she might have saved a life or two: not a single soul would ever consider throwing himself overboard for the rest of his life. She could see Scott pushing to the front of the crowd to get out. He had left Ginny behind him and she cried out for help, afraid to move on her own. Rahel moved slowly through the crowd towards her. Ginny was frightened and Rahel would do her best to help her. Scott was fighting for his own life now, whatever that life was. They all were. Nobody wanted to die. Not when they had seen what was coming for them.
Jacob R. Weber is a translator living in Maryland. He has published fiction in The Baltimore Review, The Potomac Review, and other journals. His 2017 book of short stories, Don’t Wait to Be Called, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Award for Fiction. He has an MA in English (creative writing focus) from University of Illinois at Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.