The Sinking of the Jade Rabbit
Perhaps I should have seen the blazing red sky that morning as an even bigger warning than the sailors forecasted such a sky to be. Perhaps. Michael stood at the railing at the bow of the Jade Rabbit, staring out at the choppy surface of the Atlantic Ocean, his curly black hair tousled by the gentle, warm breeze scented with the fragrance of orchids from rainforests hundreds of miles away. His back was to me as I stood at the helm, my hands loosely grasping the wheel, looking at him through a window of the bridge. The slight sound of water tapping against the hull of the boat, like the tiny hands of imagined sea creatures knocking to be allowed aboard, competed with the barely audible flapping of the sails that lacked the wind to make them billow. Perhaps if I hadn't allowed Michael and the others to fish the giant sea tortoise from the calm glassy water a few miles from the coast of Barbados, everything that happened could have been prevented. Perhaps.
* * *
Ten days before the sinking.
The tall palm trees on the island of Dominica stood as sentinels between the isolated white sand beach and the dense forest that lay beyond. Parrots nesting in the palm leaves squawked noisily. Sitting against the trunks of the trees, Michael and I held binoculars to our eyes and watched sperm whales breach the ocean water on their way north followed by pods of bottlenose dolphins. Land crabs scurried about us as Meg and Thomas chased after them, tossing those that they caught in a large tin pot. Everyone else had gone into the jungle in search of a freshwater pool to swim and bathe. The smoke from the campfire that Freddie and Jocelyn built before traipsing into the jungle with Al and Peter, hung like a rain-laden cloud above the crackling wood.
The four crew members of the Jade Rabbit manned the two row boats riding to the island over the rolling waves, bringing with them picnic supplies, baskets full of food, and bottles of wine. The yacht sat with its anchor lowered and its sails tied down within a short distance of the shore. Its jade green trim and the rabbit painted near the bow stood out in dark contrast to the glistening white of the yacht's hull. Seagulls that had suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere hovered like balloons filled with helium above the rowboats.
Meg let out a squeal of delight as she tossed a crab into the pot.
Michael lowered his binoculars. “Did we really have to bring them along?” he hissed in a whispered voice.
We had met Meg and Thomas in a bar in Havana. They were recent college grads seeing as much of the world as they could before finding jobs and settling down. She was annoyingly perky, but intelligent. He was hunky, very easy on the eyes, but he talked endlessly, mostly about himself. Everyone had liked them at first because they were different from our crowd and we found them amusing, like being around a different species, but by the time we had reached the British Virgin Islands, no one wanted to be around them, but by then it was too late to just dump them.
“He has his physical charms,” I said.
Michael stood and brushed the sand from the seat of his shorts. “Your tastes get more pedestrian the older you get,” he said. He then walked to the water and stood there, letting the waves wash over his feet.
I raised my binoculars and looked out at the sea. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw a man swimming near the yacht. I was about to scream out when I realized I was seeing a large sea turtle. It then disappeared beneath the water's surface.
* * *
Five days before the sinking.
A light rain fell from silver-colored clouds. My first officer, Jaliendro, the only other person aboard the yacht able to navigate the ship in the open sea, manned the wheel while chewing on the end of an unlit cigar. Although I'd never seen him drunk, he reeked of cheap whiskey, something he would have brought on board since I stocked the yacht with only the best liquors. He was a large man who rarely spoke and when he did it was a mixture of Spanish, French and English that was difficult to understand. He was sleeping on a pier in the marina in Miami where I kept the yacht when I first met him a year before. We had sailed the coast of the United States and the Gulf Of Mexico together and got along well, so when I told him I was taking a group of friends from the Florida Keys to a few of the Caribbean Islands and down the coast of South America, and asked if he wanted to go along as the second-in-command. His only question was, “What about Michael?”
“He'll be going along, of course,” I answered.
He never stated outright his dislike of Michael but it was obvious even in how he said Michael's name, as if he were sucking on a lemon. I had never seen the two of them say more than three words to each other.
I left the bridge, stood on the deck, looked up at the billowing sails, and let the gently falling rain wash my face. The rain was warm and smelled like the sea, salty and slightly fishy. I heard through an open porthole Al's boisterous laughter. He was playing poker in the salon with his partner, Peter, and Freddie and Jocelyn. The four of them had formed an unspoken alliance.
“Eavesdropping?” Michael said, coming up behind me.
I turned, wondering where he had come from and a little alarmed that he had snuck up on me. “I thought maybe you went inside to play cards with the others.”
“If you haven't noticed, I've stopped playing cards and board games. It became tiresome.”
I had noticed and immediately regretted asking something I knew the answer to. Michael didn't like his unhappiness going unnoticed. “What have you been doing?”
“Circling the deck, for exercise,” he said. He brushed his wet hair back with his fingers. “We're being followed.”
“Followed? By who?”
He looked toward the water. “Not a who. A what. A large sea turtle. Its been following us for days. I just saw it from the starboard side deck. Meg and Thomas were trying to lure it closer to the yacht by tossing it handfuls of caviar.”
* * *
Three days before the sinking.
Jocelyn sat on the white grand piano with her legs crossed and her black, sequined gown that was slit up to her hip opened enough to show her shapely legs. She looked much younger than her age of fifty. Her husband, Freddie, also fifty, whose gray hair and bulging belly gave his age away, sat on the piano bench and randomly tapped several keys at once, producing discordant notes. They were my oldest friends and were extravagantly affluent and entertained themselves by traveling the world.
“If only you could really play, my dear,” Jocelyn said to him, “then I could do more than just sit here like a hood ornament.”
“You can't sing anyway if that's what you're suggesting,” he said, “but you do brighten up any piano.”
She held up her glass of bourbon. “You do say the sweetest things. It's a good thing that both of our talents lie in having a good time.” She downed the bourbon and fixed her gaze on Michael who was sitting in a chair and staring out the glass sliding door at the moonlit ocean. She shook the ice in her glass, which made a tinkling sound. “Michael, darling, do you miss dancing?”
He slowly turned his head, facing her. “I should never have left it,” he said. He turned his attention back to the glistening water.
I had met Michael in a bar in New York City the year before. He was twenty-two and a principal dancer in a revival of Oklahoma. It's no exaggeration when I say he took my breath away. When I approached him and we began to talk he didn't seem fazed by our age difference. I was forty-two. We dated for three weeks before I said to him one night while we were lying in bed, “I have a yacht in Miami and plan on sailing on it for a few years. I'd like you to come with me.”
He looked down at his feet as if they were speaking to him. “Once you stop dancing professionally for that long it's hard to return to it,” he said. “I don't know what I would do if I can't dance.”
“I'll buy you your own dance studio when we've grown tired of sailing.”
He rolled over onto his side, facing away from me. “Okay. Sure. Why not?” he mumbled a few moments later.
Freddie slammed his hands down on the piano keys. “Oh, God, I'm so bored!” he exclaimed loudly.
“You're such a drama queen,” Jocelyn said coolly.
Everyone in the salon burst out laughing, except for Michael who jumped up and went to the sliding door. “Did you see that?” he shouted.
“What?” several of us responded simultaneously.
“There's a man swimming out there,” he said, excitedly. “He came to the surface swam a few strokes and then went under again.”
“Oh, darling! Mermen?” Jocelyn squealed mockingly. “I thought that sort of thing was passe.”
“It wasn't a merman,” Michael snapped at her. “But I swear I saw him.”
* * *
Two days before the sinking.
Before breakfast, Al and Peter, were on the lower deck, still dressed in their matching yellow silk pajamas, watching Hess and Marcus, crew members and two brothers I hired while at a port in Norfolk, Virginia who served as housekeepers, waiters and valets on the yacht. They were congenial and good sailors. Their muscles bulged as they stood on the edge of the deck gripping the ends of a large net and slowly pulled the net up the side of the hull.
“It's a big one,” Hess shouted excitedly as he strained to raise the net.
“What's going on here?” I said, standing on the ladder leading from the upper deck.
Peter rushed over to the bottom of the ladder and looked up at me with the wide-eyed expression of a child on Christmas morning. “They did it. We had Hess and Marcus put the net out and they caught that turtle that's been following us all this time.” He and Al found fun and excitement in everything, but usually quickly grew bored with what had interested them. They were both in their early thirties and owned a chain of men's boutique clothing stores in south Florida. For them, the two months they planned on being on the yacht was a vacation.
I jumped from the ladder and ran to the edge of the deck. The turtle – about the same size as me – was entangled in the netting. Its dark eyes fixed on me, penetrating to the core of my soul.
“Why are you bringing it on board?” I asked, quickly turning away from the turtle's gaze and looking at Al.
“Imagine what Cook can do with all that turtle meat,” he said.
I should have spoken up and told them to let the turtle go, but I said nothing. If I had told them to release it maybe things would have turned out differently. No, not maybe. Definitely.
* * *
The day before the sinking.
I stood at the wheel and listened to the sounds of the waves slapping against the sides of the yacht as we stood still in the choppy water. We had lowered the sails the night before to remain anchored near an island that was no larger than a city block, but everyone wanted to spend the night camping on its beach. Only Jaliendro and I spent the night on the yacht.
I laid in my bed listening to the ocean waves through an open porthole. It was pleasant to have the bed to myself, without Michael reminding me through his obvious silences and indifference toward me that I had led him to an unhappy existence. It was those thoughts that pulled me from my bed and to the kitchen, accompanied by feeling vaguely as if I was at fault for the turtle's capture, although I had nothing to do with it.
The turtle lay on the slick, tile floor in the kitchen covered with a wet towel. I sat on a metal stool, which Cook sat on while he peeled and chopped vegetables, and peered at the hapless creature. Its eyes were closed and I thought it was asleep, although uncertain if turtles slept. “What a fix you've gotten yourself into,” I said.
Its eyes suddenly shot open and it locked its glassy stare on my face. “No more than the fix you're in,” it said.
I nearly toppled from the stool and then, to calm myself, quickly decided I had just imagined it. The turtle kept its eyes glued to me. I stared at them, realizing there was something human-like about them, an intelligence, an awareness. I wasn't expecting an answer, but out of curiosity I asked, “What fix?”
In that instant it morphed from the form of a turtle into that of a man with pale green skin. He sat up as if changing from a reptile to a human came as second nature to him. His limbs were long and muscular, and he moved gracefully. He reminded me of Michael.
“This can't be happening,” I said as I rubbed my eyes hoping I could wipe away what felt like a dream.
“You live a life without love,” the man-turtle said.
“That's not true,” I protested, “I have my friends who love me with me now.” Suddenly I felt foolish for responding to a hallucination.
The man-turtle stood up and dropped the towel from its body. Heat, like warm ocean currents, radiated from its body. He walked over to me and placed his hand gently on my cheek. “They're not your friends. You own them, like possessions, with no real interest in who they are other than what amusement they provide you.”
I pushed his hand away and instantly regretted doing it. The feel of his hand lingered on my skin, a feeling of comfort and concern that had radiated throughout my entire being. Without knowing why, I wanted to cry. I was suddenly consumed with tiredness. “I'm growing old so fast and I'm afraid of being alone,” I said.
“It's the nature of your species,” he said softly. “You're only accountable for how you use the life that is given to you. I'm here to take care of you if you permit it.”
I hadn't been spoken to with such kindness since I was a child.
“But you're just a turtle,” I said, and then tears began to flow down my cheeks.
He took me in his arms and rocked me back and forth. “And you're just a man.”
“Perhaps it's too late for me to find love,” I said as I sobbed, my face buried in his chest.
“Perhaps,” he replied as he changed back into a turtle. “Perhaps, not,” he stated as he closed his eyes.
* * *
The day of the sinking.
Perhaps I should have seen the blazing red sky that morning as an even bigger warning than sailors forecasted such a sky to be. Jaliendro raised his binoculars to his eyes and looked at the black veil-like curtain of rain that spread across the horizon beneath clouds bathed in blood-red.
“There's a bad storm approaching fast,” he said. “The full force of it might reach us in a couple of hours, maybe sooner.”
“You broadcast our coordinates and make sure our emergency beacon is set,” I instructed. “I'll get Hess and Marcus to help me lower the sails.”
I walked out of the bridge and laid my hand on Michael's back.
He jerked away. “Must you touch me where Jaliendro can see us?” he asked. “He hates me already because it's me and not him who is your lover.”
This was news to me. It never entered my mind that Jaliendro saw me as anything more than his boss. I decided that I would talk to Michael about it later.
“There's a storm coming,” I said. “You should get inside and make sure all of your things are battened down.”
“Battened?” he repeated mockingly. “You're not a real sailor, you know?”
“Please get inside,” I said as I walked away.
Thirty minutes later after we lowered and secured the sails, Michael was still standing at the railing. I followed Hess and Marcus inside where everyone except Meg, Thomas, and Michael were seated at the table in the dining room. Cook was serving them scrambled eggs from a warming pan.
The yacht was swaying wildly on the turbulent water.
“Eat up and then prepare for a few hours of being tossed about. This a storm looks like it might turn out to be a big one,” I said.
Cook handed the pan of eggs to Marcus and went into the kitchen. I walked behind him, calling for Hess to come also. Cook had picked up a butcher knife and was standing over the turtle.
“What are you planning to do with that?” I asked him.
“I thought I'd butcher it now and fix turtle steaks and soup after the storm passes.”
I had hired Cook in Miami where he had been a chef in a popular restaurant known for its exotic cuisine. He ran roughshod over Hess and Marcus who complained about him constantly. He spent most of his time in the kitchen or alone in his cabin on the lowest deck where the other crew cabins were located.
“We're going to dump the turtle back into the sea,” I said to him and Hess.
The two men looked at each other and shrugged. We partly carried and partly pushed the turtle out of the kitchen and across the deck. Just before we shoved it over the side I looked into its eyes and in that moment saw the man who had rocked me in his arms. It made a huge splash when it hit the water and then quickly submerged.
Everyone was still seated at the table when I went back into the dining room. Rain pelted the glass doors that led to the deck with gale wind force.
“Really, darling, all this fuss over a little rain,” Jocelyn said, waving a piece of bacon.
“Need I remind you that we're out in the open sea and anything can happen?” I said.
“Does that include finding more bottles of burgundy white in the wine cellar, because Hess said you were out?” Al asked, followed by a loud guffaw.
“I'll be on the bridge,” I said and left. When I stepped out onto the deck I collided with Thomas and Meg who were dressed in swimwear and headed to the bow of the yacht. She was holding a bottle of champagne.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Thomas wrapped his arm around Meg's waist and pulled her to him. “Jaliendro said a big storm was coming and we're going to sit on the bow and experience it fully.”
“You should go inside,” I warned.
“That wouldn't be any fun,” Meg said, giggling. “Your friends don't like us around much.”
My face reddened, embarrassed for my friends, and embarrassed that I felt the same way. I didn't know they had noticed. “You're just younger than everyone else, except Michael,” I said.
“He's no fun either,” Thomas said. “He mopes around too much.”
I nodded, knowingly. “Be careful,” I said before we parted ways at the bridge. When I closed the door I looked through the window and watched the couple go to the bow and sit down, their legs dangling over the edge. The rain was falling as if poured from a bucket.
Michael was no longer at the railing.
Jaliendro was turning knobs on the wireless. “We've lost connection,” he said. “The last transmission I got said something about . . .”
The last memories I have about being aboard the Jade Rabbit was hearing Jaliendro scream at that moment and looking out the window as the rogue wave arose and washed over my yacht, sweeping Meg and Thomas from the bow, and then rolling the yacht over as if it were a play thing.
When I opened my eyes I was laying on the turtle's back. “What happened?” I asked as salt water spilled from my lips.
“Fate happened,” the turtle answered. “Those aboard your ship met theirs.”
A lump formed in my throat. The faces of everyone aboard the Jade Rabbit that I had just lost flashed through my mind. I felt robbed that I hadn't been able to see Michael in those last minutes. “What about my fate?” I stammered.
“That's yet to be determined,” the turtle replied. “You have things to do that will benefit mankind and I'm here to help you get it done.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Your guardian angel.”
Steve Carr (he/him), who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 280 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960.