... - - - ^ SALVAGE! ^ - - - ...
By Mike Meginnis and Joe Milazzo
m: Your green rowboat bumps its nose against the hull of the slowly sinking iron ship. The thing has been like this for days, the water taking it so slowly that you can hardly tell it's going at all. The oil that leaks from a gash in its opposite side sits on the water like a dinner jacket on a puddle. (And this has stained your row boat, too.) The boat's body sings a droning song as it struggles to stay in one piece. There is no ladder on the side; no obvious way up. You check your provisions. You have the flare gun. You have the harpoon pistol. You have the sandwiches your wife made, piled in a paper sack. You have your rubber boots, your bucket hat. Now it is just you and the ship, and what there is to find inside.
j: May I place my ear against the hull of the broken ship?
m: It may feel strange, but there is no one here to see you do it.
j: I think I hear something, unless it’s just the soft moaning of my being mistaken.
m: It is the soft moaning of your being correct. There might be ghosts within the ship, but you knew that risk when you came. Or the moan might simply be the ship's body breaking down. (You notice, and feel, on pressing your ear to the hull, its weird, disrupted grain -- the way it’s warped.)
j: I'm satisfied, and maybe even ready. Please help me steer myself towards the place where the ship has been torn open.
m: You row your boat to the gash. It is unclear what made the wound -- there are rocks that could do it, in this part of the ocean, but they are nearer the shallows, where this ship would never go. If the crew saw what it was then they will never say it. Still, there is the ship, broken on something, and there is the breakage. You can see inside two floors from where you are -- one dark and four feet submerged, with various papers, socks, and plastic cutlery floating inside, and the one above that, which is mostly dry, where a seagull perches on the edge, and you can see the legs of some chairs, the footboard of a bed, an overturned lamp, and etc. You could climb up into the one, or wade down into the other.
j: Take sandwiches. (Which I think may have suddenly spoiled.) Take flare gun. Go wading.
m: Here there is little light, and you are leaving what light there is behind. You see family pictures but cannot see the faces of the families. You see a bed floating on the water, its sheets slick with mold. Small fish dart in and out of a radiator. A larger fish lies on a floating wooden TV tray, breathing harshly in the open air, with silver scales and soft white belly. There is also, in the open closet, a room safe -- from where you stand, like a perfectly black cube beneath the water. Exits are the bathroom door, east, and the door into the hallway, north.
j: Ask self: should I let that fish drown? Ask self: is this what a moral dilemma looks like? A soft white belly? Drop all pretense and say to self, really meaning it: yes, why have you come here? Nothing is as upside-down as you expected. Remind self: ignore everything else just long enough to restore the swimmers to their swimming states.
m: Of course, the fish might prefer to die. He might have climbed up there on purpose. (You hear the moan that is the ship's moan, or a ghost's, somewhere farther in.)
j: Try. This death is almost past my knees.
m: You drop the fish back in the water. Perhaps he wants to live, after all: he swims underneath the bed. You see that the oil from outside is mingled with the water here, in surface swirls, like a drawing of smoke, so that the water is quite clear in some places, and quite opaque in others. And then there is the dark.
j: Remind self: the safe. Dodge the hypnosis lurking in the water. Remind self: open the safe. Remind self: I still think I hear something. Repeat to self: open the safe.
m: The safe is, naturally, locked. You'll have to find the combination.
j: Remind self: you are not a safe-cracker. Assure self: these things are only every fire-proof, not water-tight. Feel remorse over the sandwiches. Struggle north.
m: You open the door into the dark hallway. The floor is tilted upward, slightly, so that the water is less deep here. You can see a little of the room you came from. Otherwise, you are fairly certain that the hall extends west and east from here, and that there should be periodic doors in the walls. You can't see them, however. The lights are all off, and the sun has not followed you in.
j: Palpate the walls. Something here smells tumorous.
m: The walls turn to putty in your hands, squishing between your fingers, falling away when you open your hands. Inside the wall there is the luminous blue image of the ghost of the wall: not casting light on anything outside itself, not illuminating, merely glowing. (You can see through it also to the other side of the wall: more dark, though with hints and flecks of other ghost walls, ghost lamps, ghost wine bottles, some near and some quite far.)
j: Drop self. Take ghost.
m: Your body stands, struck dumb, in the hallway, its hands inside a wall. The body sways slightly as the water tugs it this way and that. It drops the bag of sandwiches. (They float.) You are the ghost of a light switch, flipped on but powerless.
j: Flip on. Flip off. Follow the wires to the nearest light fixture.
m: Now you're in the fixture, overlooking the hallway and your abandoned body. Try as you might, you can't light it up. The only light you see is yourself, and the bits of shipghost showing.
j: Somehow ask the ghost wall: "Are you haunted, or are you just the spirit of a wall?"
m: The ghost wall says, "I am haunting."
j: Ask: "What are you haunting?"
m: "Myself, and anyone who comes to see me."
j: But ghost wall, you're not the one he came to see. That was never his intent. Do you know what curiosity is? Can you understand that he was fleeing from something else and seeking, well, maybe not refuge, and not escape, but precisely this, these riddles drifting through his own curiosity?
m: The ghost wall does not answer. It is too tired now to talk, and nearly too tired to haunt. (It flickers.) Your body's legs begin to shake and fail. Now it falls to its knees, waist-deep in the oily water, surrounded by little fish and oil swirls.
j: Look at him. Take pity on him: haunt him.
m: Your body is your body but the left arm is numb. The rest is not but the left arm, it is numb. It hangs from its socket like an empty sleeve. The dark is still quite dark. The walls are peeling away from the ghost, revealing its blue. You came here for treasure. Where is treasure here?
j: Nurse arm. Remind self: the self is not so easily discarded, won't sink. Tell self: the blue doesn't matter, not any more than treasure saves. But make self keep going; there are things to discover that have nothing to do with selves. Go west, thanking the ghost wall, but being careful not to pray to it.
m: You come to a corner. There is no light here -- not even the ghost wall, which is still hidden in this section of the ship by its failing physical counterpart. There might be a door somewhere near. There might be stairs that lead down to the wholly submerged deck below, somewhere, here.
j: Search for some entry that might also serve as an exit.
m: You find a doorknob and turn it. On the other side there is a room gone fully ghost: ghost bed, ghost light fixture, ghost chair, ghost desk, ghost laptop, ghost cups and plates, ghost scattered clothes and towels, ghost room safe, and inside, ghost money (green).
j: Sit at the ghost desk. What do I hear now?
m: You hear the sound of a ballpoint pen on paper. Scritch scritch scritch. The pen doesn't have enough ink. It has to repeat itself often.
j: Read what ghost sound of the ghost pen on ghost paper keeps saying.
m: The letter is a letter to the author's mother. It says that the mother will be happy to learn that the letter's author's father has died. It says that the money is safe. It says that the mother will be happy to know that the son has already forgotten all about her. It says she will be happy to know that the dreams have finally stopped. It says these things again and again in different sequences, but with the same words. The ink is sometimes clear and sometimes there is no ink, only the scratches in the paper from where the pen circled, tried, and failed to write. "Dictated but not read," it says.
j: Leave the ghost money where it is. Lay down on the ghost bed. Dream.
m: It's the dream again. You know the one.
j: Stop the dream.
m: Don't tell me. It's not my dream.
j: Break through the dream with self's numbed arm, get up from the ghost bed, at least wake up before the dream sandstorm comes.
m: Now you're awake. Your arm is pins and needles. Outside the sun is setting. You can see it through the ghost room: the bruise of red, yellow, purple, gold that blooms in the sky and on the water. The way the pinprick stars are slowly coming forward for their turn.
j: Take the ghost money anyway. Tell self to hurry. There's a lot to be returned. Exit room.
m: Your hand passes through the ghost room safe as if through the water. (But the ghost lead is colder.) The ghost money is heavier than you thought it would be. You are in the hallway again. The walls have mostly peeled away, here, though the doors still stand solid, implied by the absence of light. The light of the room through which you entered is to the east. Or north: shadow, and the walls are much stronger, and the water more shallow.
j: Go north, hoping, also sadly asking self: why do you always need to be told what to do?
m: As the floor rises out of the water, you become conscious of the trail of drips you are leaving behind. Your left arm's function is mostly returned. You come to another corner. Here a ladder, a doorway. The ship may be sinking more quickly than you thought. What will you buy with the ghost money?
j: The ghost money is not for spending. It belongs. Wait, drips of what?
m: Water, oil, and your own ghost, which beads your skin as it works to escape through your pores.
m: Up the ladder, then, emerging onto an identical deck, but a dry one. Everything is quiet and still, like the inside of an empty hotel. Everything is over. It was done before you came. They walked through these halls with their families. They met women here, and men. They slept over in each other's rooms. They ordered drinks. They changed the sheets. They called in for more towels. They ate dinner on the bed. They laughed. They watched DVDs. And then they all left, most of them in lifeboats, some of them into the walls. But you're still here, in the still and stillness. This corner is the same as every other corner. Hallways south and east, numbered and lettered doors, some locked and some unlocked, empty, pointless. Your body feels tired. You are your body. You left your ghost smeared on the ladder. There is not much left.
j: Count the money again. Is it all there?
m: Yes. All the money is there.
j: I shouldn't be relieved, but I am. I understand: nothing of this is mine, or was. Certainly never was. My mother and father are waiting for me, making sandwiches at the yellow of the kitchen counter alongside my wife, every so often putting aside a knife smeared with mayonnaise and adding to the fire that burns for my return. I understand: this is what you become after you've been a ghost. If I am to understand. Am I to understand? Is understanding the same as remaining here?
m: You could ask the walls. There must be ghosts beneath them too. And the ghosts of telephones. You could call someone you don't love anymore -- someone who is dead to you. But no one living. You could search for a way out, up on the deck. You would be so high above your little green row boat. You might search for the ship's wound. Your ghost is nearly gone. But a ghost is not a soul. This is a common misconception. It is what stays when all the rest is gone.
j: Call the author of the ghost letter.
m: "Hello?" he says. "Who's this?"
j: It's me. Of course it's me. Look, I don’t have much time. The money is safe, I promise you. I'm taking care of it. But I need to know: what happens in the dream when the sandstorm arrives?
m: "You are forgotten." Worse yet, you forget yourself.
Bio: Joe Milazzo is co-founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe, co-editor of the online journal [out of nothing] and proprietor of Imipolex Press. His writings have appeared in HTMLGiant, Antennae, Drunken Boat, H_NGM_N, and Black Clock, as well as the anthologies Chronometry and Conversations at the Wartime Cafe: a Decade of War 2001-2011. His The Terraces (Das Arquibancadas) will be published later this year as part of the Little Red Leaves Textile Series. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo/.