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Manoa 15.1 (2003) 170-180

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The Cargo

Anthony L. Tan

A deep-blue stillness was upon the sea as if this were the earth's last morning and the boat, with its cargo of dead bodies, were on a last voyage toward infinity.

He was in a daze, his mind unable to come to grips with bare facts. He was wrestling with the intrusions of fear and despair, alternating like the crest and trough of the waves on the boundless sea, bearing down on him as if the sheer mass of the sea itself. He wanted to talk about these emotions, about anything at all, but there was no one alive in the world. If there had been seagulls, he could have shouted at them, or better still, cursed them. But no seagulls flew this far. If the earth had been flat, this part of the sea would have been its very edge, appearing before the boat plunged into the abyss. Yet, he was aware, the sun was rising steadily, indifferently.

Asmawil stared again. On the bow, under a green tarpaulin, the huddled bodies were still warm. They were seated as though they were merely suffering from sickness. Their heads were bowed or turned. He did not know why he had them seated. He knew them all by name, by their first names. The one wearing a skullcap was his wife's nephew, bodyguard to the ship's owner. For no conscious reason, he had seated these two next to each other.

The motor launch had been drifting for three hours now. He had stopped the engine when he decided to drag the bodies to the bow. But even after he had put the tarpaulin over the bodies and securely tied its ends to the posts supporting the roof, he did not start the engine. He was in no hurry to reach Siasi, the port of departure, or any island for that matter. He was secure on his boat and, more than at any time in his life, he feared the living more than the dead. He knew what folks believed about a dead body on a boat—that it was accompanied by forty-four evil spirits, and that was why any boat carrying a dead body was a slow boat. But he feared neither the dead nor their spirits. For one thing, they did not ask any questions; or if they did, the questions were never on their lips, only in their eyes, in their faraway stare. They seemed to be looking for something farther than their eyes could see. They seemed to ask, but since their questions were never uttered, he did not have to answer them. Besides, he was certain there were no spirits. [End Page 170]

He went to the kitchen at the stern and brewed himself some coffee. He had not realized, until now, how hungry he was. When he sat down to drink his second cup, with a cigarette between his fingers, he imagined what would happen when he got back to Siasi. The whole town would turn out and flock to the wharf to see his cargo. The people would be out on the streets as they would be on a morning when a hadji came home from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Except that there would be no school band, no streamers of welcome, no firecrackers, no rich and flowing robes, no turban, no tell-tale bruise on the forehead, which was the true mark of a pilgrim who had kissed the black stone at Kaaba. Because his was a different pilgrimage. Just a night at sea and a boat of ten men, nine of them now dead. As for the bruise, it was nowhere on the body.

And the people would ask all kinds of questions and interrupt themselves with accusations and curses. Did he kill them all? All of them? What a devil! Including his nephew? It's only his wife's nephew. The same. How can anyone do such a thing? He has a tail. Money, all that money. A hundred and fifty thousand, maybe more. More...


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pp. 170-180
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