Fiction: Janalyn Guo
The Sea Captain’s Ghost
Entering the city of Boris from the sea, the Sea Captain’s Ghost notices a mollusk on the back of his neck and peels it off. The city is full of flower gardens. People from all over the world come to Boris for its flower gardens, he is told by a billboard. Flower trellis–covered towers jut skyward. When the wind blows, the light catches the falling leaves and petals. A floral scent infuses the salty air. The weary Ghost of the Sea Captain tries to find his way to the Starfish Villa where the Sea Captain’s daughter lives, holding a map and asking the men standing outside of their restaurants for directions. They are polite enough to point the way but look at him like he can’t be trusted.
There are motes everywhere in this town. He swallows all the motes in view, like little fireflies hovering lazily in the landscape, swept to and fro by the wind. The Sea Captain’s Ghost rings the doorbell at the gate to the Starfish Villa. He can see the distinct shape of the house from the gate. The outer shell of the house is a light pink color. There are a total of five arms that convene at the center. Just like a starfish, the roof of the villa has a bumpy pink texture, created by little domed skylight protrusions. There is a weathered plaque on the gate that provides a brief biography of the architect, who designed the villa before walking into the sea. This man is Daphne’s late husband. Just like the Sea Captain, the architect was obsessed with the sea. Daphne, wearing a red raincoat, greets the Ghost of the Sea Captain at the gate.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain presents the mollusk to her.
“If it isn’t the Sea Captain,” she says. She is inspecting his features, how they’ve changed since he last departed, and something is not quite right. He is more greenish than a regular human. His hair more seaweed than keratin. His eyes like sea glass. His teeth like shells. His beard more seafoam than wiry white. His garments are tattered and sopping wet. Small, barely perceptible waves wash over his form. He is composed of sea matter and spirit matter, his perimeter infirm.
Daphne takes the mollusk from the Ghost of the Sea Captain and holds it in her palm. She’s never seen anything like it. The mollusk has a beautiful white translucent shell and is cool to the touch. The patterns on it are like electricity. She wants to hold it against her eyes.
“I am the Ghost of the Sea Captain,” he announces.
“How could that be?” she asks. “How did you die?” She makes the gesture to hand back the mollusk, unsure of what it means to accept a gift from a ghost.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain shakes his hands urgently in front of him, splashing Daphne with seawater. “No, no. The Sea Captain is not dead. I am the ghost of the undead Sea Captain. It is all explained in the mollusk,” he says.
The first meeting between the Sea Captain and the Sea Captain’s Ghost took place when the Sea Captain saw his own death before his eyes in a tumultuous storm over the Boris Sea, icy waves washing over his body, tipping him toward the infinite waters, the cannons and heavy equipment around him lurching to and fro. He saw the ghost of himself, as the scroll within the mollusk reveals, materializing from sea mist. He thought of Daphne and his grandchildren, losing another fool to the sea.
It was against fate that the Sea Captain survived the storm, losing all his fish and crew. “You were premature,” the Sea Captain said to his ghost, when it was just the two of them facing each other adrift on a ruined ship.
The ghost, puzzled to be face-to-face with the man he was supposed to replace, did not know how to retreat to the spirit world now that he’d already been conjured. Because he was premature, he was not as bloodless as a ghost. The coloration of the Sea Captain remained in his features. It was as if the Sea Captain had been twinned. Passing time together, they played chess in the cabin, entrapping each other with the same moves. They prepared sushi from freshly bled fish. They knew each other’s hearts.
Daphne mulls over the scroll for some time before shoving it deep into the mollusk. She realizes that she has two fathers to deal with now, one of them flesh and blood and the other made by the sea. The one that comes from the sea is immune to being swallowed by it, she reasons, and that is like hedging her bets with her impetuous father.
She welcomes the Ghost of the Sea Captain into the villa. They go through one of the narrow arms, where paintings of the Sea Captain, the Rose Scientist, and the Architect hang at crooked angles facing each other. They walk toward the atrium, where a small fountain spews a stream of water at the center of a rose garden. It is the center through which anyone must pass to get to another arm of the villa.
“There is a team of rose makers that live and experiment here,” Daphne says. “They invent new roses in the Coral Arm of the Starfish Villa. They can invent the shape, the color, and the scent of the rose. Every rose ever invented lives here.”
The story of the rose makers begins where the story of the architect ends, his studio repurposed for a rose lab when he died, in honor of Daphne’s late mother, the Rose Scientist. Daphne and the Ghost of the Sea Captain walk through the rose garden. Every flower has a little white label under it. The Sea Captain’s olfactory senses are clarified in the Sea Captain’s Ghost. The atrium roars with fragrance. The Sea Captain’s Ghost looks up and sees the sky and many stars through a clear dome.
“I have memories of being here by the roses,” he says, “and looking at these same stars.” The memory of the Sea Captain is not clarified in the Ghost of the Sea Captain, as the Sea Captain still possesses it. But yet …
“Whenever the Sea Captain stayed here at the Starfish Villa, he muttered to himself and hermitted in his arm of the house,” Daphne says. “I don’t know what he did most days.”
Then they pass the Mariana Arm, Daphne’s room. It is still decorated very much in the same way as when she was a girl. She pauses to put the mollusk into a spare tank. When she turns around, she sees that where the Ghost of the Sea Captain stood there is now only a puddle of slime. Daphne considers mopping away the slime, but she pauses to consider its complexity. The slime consists of marine foliage. She scoops up the slime and puts it all into the tank with the mollusk, giving it an ecosystem. She follows the slime path to the Sea Captain’s den—the Serpentine Arm—to find the Ghost of the Sea Captain at rest in the Sea Captain’s armchair. His ghostly hands grip the arms tightly the way the Sea Captain’s do when he is here. The land is so still in contrast to the sea that it sways just the same. It is in this moment that she truly believes the ghost and the Sea Captain are one and the same. Small shells are tangled in his hair. Salt crystal lashes. His hairline has receded the way waves pull at the sand and leave it smooth. The smell of something distinctly oceanic strengthens around him as he foams and snores, foams and snores.
The next day, the Sea Captain’s family is piled together on the second floor of a Boris City tour bus. The children complain about the heat as Daphne ties up their hair. Even the boys have long hair. They are exposed to the open air, embarking on a tour of the Boris attractions.
“I have strong memories of Boris,” the Ghost of the Sea Captain insists. Steadfast Daphne points out Boris landmarks to him as the wind ripples the Ghost of the Sea Captain’s complexion. The Sea Captain’s abhorrence for tourism is clarified in the Sea Captain’s Ghost.
“It’s nice to take the kids out,” says Daphne.
The first stop of the City of Boris tour is the Boris Tower. The Boris Tower is the highest structure in the city of Boris, covered in carefully groomed flower trellises and vines. The structure is old and shakes when the wind blows. Paperwork falls out of the windows. The agencies within the tower are divided between The Department of Time and the Department of Space. Historians belong in the Time Department. Eye doctors belong in the Space Department. Investment bankers belong in the Time Department. Yoga instructors belong in the Space Department. The paperwork required to establish a new agency is complicated. Every profession conceivable in the city of Boris is represented with a desk in the Boris Tower of Time and Space. The tour group rides the elevator up to the very top floor and looks out over the town. The Sea Captain’s vision is clarified in the Sea Captain’s Ghost. The cataracts from a whole life of gazing outward in the direction of the sun and the silver-tipped waves, of squinting into the distance, are gone.
The next stop on the tour is the Boris Museum. The Ghost of the Sea Captain continues to leave a trail of slime wherever he goes. The slime consists of: agar, phytoplankton, kelp, algae, sea moss, sea foam, seaweed, sea glass, sea grass, sea anemones, and coral. Daphne tries her best to swipe away the slime with her feet, but there is inevitable buildup. While they are walking across a smooth marble surface in a hall of sculptures from ancient Boris, an elderly woman from the bus tour slips on a dollop of slime and has to be sent to the hospital. The rest of the tour group gathers around the Sea Captain’s Ghost and studies the slime. They pick up ocean pieces and smell them. One daring individual puts a bit of slime in his mouth and swallows.
“I’m a professor of marine botany,” he says. “This is all good, edible stuff.” The botanist is a very excitable man, and he’s made a fantastic discovery. Word quickly spreads of the taste and nutritional content of the slime. The ancient statues are forgotten.
“The slime is multipurpose. It can be eaten. It can be rubbed on the face, like a mask. It can cover the entire body for a hydrating effect. It can be used as shampoo. It can be hardened, shaped into a bullet, and used as a suppository. It can also be used as a poultice,” the marine botanist announces.
Daphne remembers being in the Serpentine Arm, standing above the sleeping Ghost of the Sea Captain. The scent of the Ghost of the Sea Captain is lovely. It is musky and sensitive. Surprisingly, it is not a repulsing scent, she thinks. It is not sulfurous like typical ocean smells. People want to draw near it. It is the scent of ghosts. She, too, collects some into her empty thermos. On the other hand, the children are immune to the scent’s charm. They stay away from the Sea Captain’s Ghost, always making their mother sit in between as a barricade.
That night, after the children fall asleep, after the Ghost of the Sea Captain seals himself away in his arm, Daphne reads about ghosts and their specific byproducts. According to the article that she reads, excretions vary depending on the ghost’s categorization, whether it is a fire ghost, earth ghost, water ghost, wood ghost, or metal ghost. Water ghosts, the article states, are occasionally associated with life-enhancing goop. Secretions are correlated with their proximity to life-generating sources that emit electrical charges. Ghosts feed on electrical charges in the form of motes, invisible to the human eye. Places of comfort produce fields of motes; thus, their haunting patterns are established.
Later the next day, the family takes a small ferry out to the lighthouse island in exchange for a jar of slime. “There’s nothing out there anymore,” the ferry driver says. “Not for a long time.” Daphne is determined to go, so they go. Possessing the runaway heart of the Sea Captain, the Ghost of the Sea Captain enjoys the ride out to sea. The driver of the ferry allows the children to steer. They clamor toward the wheel and argue over who gets to hold it.
“Point the little marker on the steering wheel at the buoy in the ocean. Do you see it?” the Ghost of the Sea Captain whispers between their ears. The boat zigzags across the bay because the kids cannot calculate the ship’s swing. They cannot see the buoy because of a gray haze overtaking the sky.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain does not correct their moves. Daphne is surprised that the Sea Captain’s foul temper is lost in the Ghost of the Sea Captain. Something has been resolved in the Sea Captain’s death, she thinks. The Sea Captain’s near death, she corrects herself. The Sea Captain’s terrible moods were a byproduct of being alive. She remembers the Sea Captain’s gruffness as the terror of her childhood, his fury like the sea itself. It was the great separator.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain sees a great snowy egret perched on a branch of a mangrove. The egret looks like it has a coat on with lace and a fringe around the bottom. The kids gather around him and look where he points. They squeal with glee: “Elegant, simply elegant,” they say. Against the wind, locks of their long hair whip in all different directions, like they are dancing.
When they reach the island, they take a footpath from the dock to the ruins of a small amusement park named Pleasure Beach. The sign still hangs, though lopsidedly, at the entryway. The rides were demolished long ago; large heaps of metal and wood are the only evidence of the magic of Pleasure Beach that Daphne remembers. They walk through the ruins. Only the old playhouse is still intact, but it is covered in graffiti and everything within has been looted or destroyed. There is a general smell of mold.
There are squatters living on the island. One man operates a rabbit-roasting machine. In the upper compartment of the machine, a rabbit rotates on a stick. All the juice drips down toward the lower compartment of the machine where roasting potatoes soak in the grease. Another man sells fireworks.
The rabbit roaster says. “People are interested in seeing the ruins. We wanted to be here first, for the early sales.”
“People like me,” says Daphne.
“Enough time has passed,” says his friend, “for this place to be meaningful again.”
The rabbit roaster throws another rabbit into the roasting machine. “It’s romantic to see ruins,” he says. “Everything is tinted by what could have been.”
Daphne purchases food for everyone, except for the Ghost of the Sea Captain. He is standing among the ruins, as if he is a part of them. The hazy motes are overwhelming. He used to come here as a boy, he thinks. The memories come together vaguely and then dissipate. The Sea Captain’s silence is clarified in the Ghost of the Sea Captain. Daphne is used to the Sea Captain’s long silences, the ocean’s effect. The children dig their teeth into the rabbit flesh, their mouths shiny with oil.
They are now standing at a sort of cliff, at the edge of the amusement park, overlooking the rocks and the waves. The wind picks up and the Ghost of the Sea Captain considers the treacherousness of the rocks lying just below the surface and peeking out only at low tide. He thinks about the sunken ships, the deaths of sailors, how hard it is to build an afterlife. It is like holding sand in your hands.
The Sea Captain’s Ghost returns to the Sea Captain, traveling two hundred nautical miles in the blink of an eye. Because he is the Ghost of the Sea Captain, he can return to the Sea Captain anytime. It is a compulsion that leads him back. Upon the ship, there are the waterlogged compartments and there are the dry compartments. This divides the ship into what is the Sea Captain’s and what is the Sea Captain’s Ghost’s.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain wanders through the waterlogged rooms of the Sea Captain’s vessel and marvels at the objects suspended before him: cases of medicines and salves, bottles of liquor, a ship in a bottle, logbooks open and indecipherable, telescopes, terrestrial and celestial maps, photographs, garments soft and blooming like large white jellyfish, starched uniforms losing their composure, a collection of earthly specimens sealed tightly in petri dishes.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain provides for the Sea Captain. For instance, the Ghost of the Sea Captain gives the Sea Captain fishes by geysering them up to the surface from below. Above water, the Sea Captain can use his pocketknife to make sushi from freshly bled fish and nourish himself back to health. The ghost also provides light, its body giving off an otherworldly luminescence that attracts certain sea creatures to the surface of the water at night.
The Sea Captain’s possessions carry some traces that are detected only by ghosts. In the vessel, the white motes are everywhere. The Ghost of the Sea Captain gobbles up every charge in sight. The ship creaks as the waves slam against it. Over the course of several days, the Ghost of the Sea Captain wanders through compartment after compartment of his waterlogged quarters until he’s eaten the entire ship clean.
After spending time apart, the two Sea Captains come together to play a game of chess. The Ghost of the Sea Captain tells the Sea Captain about his travels. The Sea Captain nods, but he’s only half listening. He concentrates intensely on his moves, like the game is everything. He cannot let the Ghost of the Sea Captain win. And so far, he hasn’t. Sitting in command of his ship—blind, feverish, and ailing—he checkmates his ghost.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain comes and goes from the Starfish Villa as he pleases. He is the Sea Captain’s emissary. When the Ghost of the Sea Captain arrives, he brings a creature from the Boris Sea that Daphne has never seen before. She marvels at the sight of the creature and finds a tank for it. “The Sea Captain is reviving,” the Ghost of the Sea Captain announces. “He is on his way back to shore.”
After the Ghost of the Sea Captain’s departure, Daphne tidies up the Starfish Villa, collecting shells and little mollusks from the rooms. She puts the bigger things into an aquarium, the smaller things into small terrarium jewelry that she wears around her neck or in her ears. She has accumulated many marine creatures now, aquariums and terrariums of varying shapes and sizes full of them, displayed in the various arms of the Starfish Villa. The illuminated tanks cast a bluish light. The rose makers begin to complain because their most recent roses keep coming out blue and smelling of saltwater and sea breeze.
The children are sleeping. The Ghost of the Sea Captain and Daphne have dinner at a seafood restaurant. The waiters wear long white aprons that look like dresses. They are tall and handsome and remind Daphne of the praying mantis. Daphne explains to the Ghost of the Sea Captain that the Starfish Villa has no more room for sea creatures. They’re getting bigger and bigger. Soon, the Ghost of the Sea Captain will bring her a blue whale. There would be no room for anything else but the ocean in the Starfish Villa. More recently, she has been taking creatures to the aquarium.
“The aquarium has stopped accepting creatures,” she says.
“I can’t control it,” the Ghost of the Sea Captain says. “I am a ghost. I am made of ocean matter.”
“I’m starting to feel haunted,” Daphne says. She gestures at all of the tiny terrariums she is wearing that clink when she moves. She feels closer to her father than she has for a long time, like they are making up for lost time, but there is once again this great separator. “The Sea Captain is coming back, and when he does you won’t have any business bringing me these,” she says. She stares at the small light at the end of a cigarette being smoked a few tables down, blinking like a lighthouse.
The Ghost of the Sea Captain considers this fact. He can sense Daphne’s unhappiness, but the Sea Captain’s most deeply buried desires are clarified in the Sea Captain’s Ghost. How does the Ghost of the Sea Captain fit into Daphne’s life, into the Starfish Villa when any day now the Sea Captain will return?
When they arrive back at the Starfish Villa, it is near dark and the tanks glow blue in the darkness. Immediately they notice a strange smell. It is a terrible, putrid smell. It crawls up Daphne’s nose and shoots a million directions inside her.
Daphne says, “I have to search the tanks.”
Daphne opens all the windows to air out the smell. The hanging mini-terrariums clink against each other at the half-opened window, which lets in a small draft. She probes through each tank, searching through the mollusks, the starfish, the monkfish, the seahorses, the jellyfish, sifting for the dead. She handles this swiftly and dexterously, as if this is a regular occurrence. She runs from arm to arm of the Starfish Villa with a scoop, her collection of dead fish growing.
The Sea Captain’s Ghost thinks of the egret as he makes his way back to the Sea Captain. He is like the egret. The ocean is this great silence over which the egret must pass. It is like the mind, stirring, colliding and crashing against itself. The Sea Captain revels in its chaos, nearly drowns in it, away from the close bearings of people.
Daphne gives the Ghost of the Sea Captain an album of photos every time he departs. He is not in any of the photos though there is always an empty space where he should be. He sits with the Sea Captain as they flip through the photos in the cabin. The Sea Captain gazes at them distantly, his mind secretly churning. Then, the Sea Captain pours himself a glass of whiskey and stares into the face of the Sea Captain’s Ghost. The winds roar around the sea vessel. Usually, the Sea Captain’s Ghost sits still like the subject of a painting and considers the sunset. This time, he breaks away from the Sea Captain’s gaze and begins to set up the chessboard.
Janalyn Guo lives and writes in Salt Lake City. You can find her stories online at Quarterly West, The Collagist, Interfictions, and Black Sun Lit; and in print at Denver Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Bat City Review, Tusculum Review (and other places). Her debut collection of stories, Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, is forthcoming from Subito Press.
Image: bamagirl, morguefile.com