On the third day of the sightseeing trip, among walrus-laden icebergs, they run into slurry. At the fore, Skipper sticks a boat hook into the water.
“There are plenty of critters here,” he says. “It’s like playing grab bag. You’ll always catch something on the hook.”
He thrusts the boat hook up and down a couple of times, stirs it in the slush, and pulls it out again. A transparent little rag is impaled on the tip. Skipper shows it to the tourists where they stand lined up in their bright thermal clothing. They gape at him like schoolchildren.
“These,” he says, “are great with fresh cucumber.”
The rag squirms. A couple of the tourists turn grey in the face.
“Anyone want to try for themselves?” Skipper asks.
Half of the tourists raise their hands. The other half turn away in disgust. All of them had fish for lunch, but they hadn’t watched the fish die.
• • • •
The walls of Kim’s cramped cabin are painted with huge portholes that look out on an eerie underwater landscape. On the sandy ocean floor, a fat mermaid covered in barnacles sits on a rock. A monstrous anglerfish floats above her, its lure bathing the mermaid in a greenish shimmer. It’s somehow colder down here than on deck. A damp chill radiates from the walls. Now and then, something bumps against the boat and makes it boom like a drum. The ice scraping on the hull makes a noise like a rock slide. The two nights she has stayed here, Kim has woken up in panic, sure that they must have hit an iceberg. But the ship stays afloat, and chugs farther and farther north. Around them, walrus bulls sing in drawn-out foghorn howls.
This trip is supposedly good for her health. It’ll help her recovery. All she can think is how going elsewhere isn’t enough. The world she had emerged into will still be there when she comes back.
• • • •
On the fourth day, as they drink coffee on deck, the boat slips into an enormous ice cave. Its ribbed vault is slick and blue. In the wall, someone has carved out a landing on which the tourists disembark. The sound of boots on ice is more muffled than Kim had thought it would be.
“Look,” Skipper says, and points at a spot in the wall that seems to glow with its own light. “Do you know what this is? Anyone?”
No one speaks. Skipper scratches at the ice with his finger. It’s surprisingly porous: before long, his nail has punctured the surface and a glowing thing pours into his hand. It looks vaguely like a gelatinous starfish. Its yellow luminescence faintly lights Skipper’s face from below.
“That thing I showed you on the boat,” Skipper makes a stabbing motion with his other hand, “this is another part of their life cycle. They attach themselves to the bottom of the icebergs, you see, and kind of seep up through the ice. If I hadn’t taken this little fellow out, it would have made it all the way up to the top. It’d have taken it, oh, a year or so.”
Kim thinks of a year, two years, pushing up through solid ice, and has to remind herself to breathe.
“And then?” someone asks.
“And then it’s food for the seagulls.”
“That’s it?” Kim says. “There must be a point to it.”
“Of course,” Skipper replies. “It lays eggs in the seagull’s stomach, and the seagull shits out little baby starfish into the ocean.”
The glowing critter twitches in Skipper’s hand. He sticks it to the wall and moves on into the tunnel. The others follow him.
Kim watches as the starfish fails to hang on to the wall and drops to the floor. On an impulse, she picks it up and puts it in her empty thermos mug, then fills it with the ice shavings Skipper left behind. She screws the cap back on and follows the others. After maybe fifty meters, the frozen floor gives way to striped granite polished smooth by millennia of traveling ice. Now that they’re farther from the cave opening, the light fails and the aquamarine greys over into gunmetal. Here and there, faint smudges of light dot the walls: more starfish fighting their way toward the surface. The tourists bring out their flashlights and gawk at a series of rock carvings that depict people fishing.
When it’s almost dark, Skipper takes them back to the boat.
• • • •
Kim opens the thermos mug and sets it down on her nightstand. Inside, the little starfish bobs up and down in the water. It somehow seems content.
Dinner is sailor’s stew, which Skipper inevitably quips is made from real sailor. The meat is tough, the sliced potatoes undercooked. The other passengers are very enthusiastic. They talk about the carvings they saw today. Who made them? Why here? What do they mean? When Kim speaks up, they smile vaguely, then turn away. Skipper teaches them shanties.
Much later, Skipper passes out plum brandy. Those who are still awake sit with him on crates at the fore, bundled up against the paralyzing cold. Ice rattles against the hull. The moon is down, but the fat band of stars above spreads a ghostly light. Kim realizes she has forgotten how bright the sky can be outside the cities.
“I’ll tell you about the Iron Coffin,” Skipper intones. “I’ll tell you what every sailor in these parts knows.”
He pauses for effect.
“It’s not an actual coffin, of course. It’s a place. Now, it’s on a main route, so everyone has to cross it now and then. It doesn’t look like anything in particular, it’s just open water. But when the moon is full, it’s dangerous.”
“Some say it’s because the seabed is rich in minerals, others that it’s some kind of paranormal phenomenon. Some say it’s cursed. Whatever it is, if you get close to that place under a full moon, your compass will stop working. It’ll point in the wrong direction. And you can’t use the stars to navigate either, because they’ll shift, and all of a sudden they’ll be in the wrong place. So you think you’re navigating on target, well away from the Coffin, when in fact you’re heading straight toward it. And most ships that go there disappear. Nobody knows if they’re just dragged under, or if they go elsewhere. But the crew on ships that got away talk about bright lights and strange noises. There’s a special map for the full moon, and you have to use that even though the compass and the stars tell you that you’re going the wrong way.”
The sharp aroma of plum brandy wafts over the deck as skipper drinks from his cup, then lets out an “aah” and rubs his chest.
“That’s all for now, kids,” he says. “Good night.”
The tourists shuffle inside. Skipper remains at the fore, staring into the gloom. Kim sits down beside him. He hands her the cup. The brandy burns her throat. When Skipper speaks again, his voice is hoarse and has lost its over-dramatic tone.
“There was a captain I knew. He had a daughter he loved more than anything. His wife died in childbirth, so he took his daughter everywhere, and he tried to be both mother and father to her. But she wouldn’t love him. Maybe she couldn’t love at all. The captain, he despaired. He thought that if his daughter didn’t love him, then his life was pointless.”
He looks up at the galaxy’s arm. “He went to sea one night, when the moon was full, and he threw his map away and navigated after the stars. He figured he would capsize.”
Skipper cries quietly into his beard.
“Did he?” Kim asks.
Skipper shakes his head. “He came out the other side.”
“And then what?”
“Then he went about his life.”
“Did he ever try again?”
“He wanted to, but he was afraid. Afraid of drowning in cold water. Afraid that he wouldn’t drown and that he would return to where he came from.”
“Where he came from? I thought you said he came out the other side.”
“Yes. The other side.”
“I wish I could go,” Kim says.
Skipper looks down at her. “Now why would you want to do that? You’re young. You have everything to live for.”
Kim looks back at him. “You don’t know me.”
“I don’t. But it can’t be as bad as all that.”
“That’s what they all say,” Kim replies. “Good night.”
In the cabin, the thermos mug is empty. It’s only when Kim has turned the light off to sleep that she sees the starfish. It has crawled up along the wall and ensconced itself in a corner, next to the mermaid. It shimmers in yellow and green.
• • • •
On the fifth day, they anchor at a little pier on a rocky island. The only building on the shingle beach is a little fishing shed. The tourists mill around on the beach, looking at rocks and sticking fingers into the water with squealy delight. Skipper looks at the spectacle from the pier, arms crossed. He’s just told the group about the slabs of what looks like concrete sticking out of the water. An ancient road, he says, that goes over the ocean floor right to the Iron Coffin. The slabs look like regular concrete.
“Is it true?” Kim asks him.
Skipper shrugs. “According to the tour package, it is.”
“So it’s not so far from here.”
“No, it’s not so far from here.” Skipper pauses. “So what happened to you?”
“I was ill for a long time,” Kim says. “It changed me.”
Skipper pats her on the shoulder. His eyes are kind. Kim briefly takes his hand and holds it. His calluses rasp against her glove.
“I don’t want to die,” Kim says. “It’s just that there’s nothing here for me anymore.”
“And so you want to go to the Coffin.”
“I thought maybe there’d be something else.”
“There may be,” Skipper replies. “The starfish might not be there. The walrus bulls might sing another tune. But nothing will be better.”
“Don’t you ever get homesick?” Kim asks.
“Always,” Skipper says. “But there’s no point.”
“Maybe she’s changed.”
“Then bring someone who likes you.”
Skipper looks over at her. Kim blushes.
“You don’t know me,” he says.
“No,” Kim replies, “but I do like you. And that’s the first time that’s happened in years.”
Skipper clears his throat. “Well. I like you, too.”
The silence after is easy, not awkward.
• • • •
On the fifth day, they arrive at another island with a Viking-style longhouse. They’re to stay there for the night and see what it’s like to sleep between furs. They cook a communal meal on the boat; they sing shanties; Skipper tells a funny story. He looks at Kim every now and then, a little too long to just be accidental glances. When she smiles at him, his face brightens. His teeth are brown and crooked, but it’s an infectious smile.
Late at night, Skipper beckons Kim outside. The full moon glows on the horizon.
“Listen,” Skipper says. “Tomorrow’s stop is as close as we’re going to get.”
“Are you saying we’ll go?” Kim asks.
“What would happen if I said no?”
“I’ll go home again,” Kim says, “and wither.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“You could stay up here. We could get to know each other,” Skipper says.
“We would still be here,” Kim says. “Which is where I can’t stand being.”
Skipper fumbles for her hand. “For you, then.”
• • • •
The tourists come running out of the longhouse as Skipper starts the engines and steers away from the pier. Kim watches from the deck as they crowd on the pier, wailing. The next tour boat will pick them up. She walks to the fore to watch the prow split the black water. The stars seem to shift. The ship speeds up. Kim looks over her shoulder at the cockpit, where Skipper stares out of the window. His face is streaked with tears.
Kim waits for the impact, or the fall, or the updraft, whatever it is that’s coming. Ahead, the galaxy’s arm opens wide.