The Night Ferry
I didn’t open my eyes. If I lay still in the bed, the excited voice might vanish and never disturb me again.
“He’s ready!” she repeated with the same exuberance. “You have to get ready too.”
Reluctantly I opened my eyes and saw her white uniform.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“The night ferry.”
“This looks like a hospital room,” I said. I had no recollection of making plans to travel.
“Yes, you’re in the infirmary.”
I touched myself through the hospital gown. My nipples felt painful and I could sense nothing below my waist. I reached down and touched my legs for reassurance. Between them my fingers found a plastic tube. I followed it until I realized it was a catheter.
“Why am I here?”
“You must be joking.” She forced a quick smile. “Hurry.”
“I’m not joking,” I replied. “Why—”
“For a miracle!”
I didn’t understand, so I tried a different question.
“What do you mean by hurry? Hurry to do what?”
“To be ready.”
“What you have to do.”
The nurse looked at me with reproach.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll go get him. Just let me do a quick check first.”
She bent over me and pulled down the front of my blue gown. Quickly she squeezed the left side of my chest, then the right. Nodding with approval, she pulled the gown up to my shoulders again.
“I’m so excited for you,” she said.
I wanted to protest, but she was out the door before I could speak. What did she mean by ready? I looked at my bed. Why had the safety bars been raised on each side? The top of the bed was elevated as if I might want to watch the dark screen of the television that hung from the ceiling. The curtain had been drawn three-quarters of the way around me, but I could still see a side table set to swing over my lap and a locker that might contain my clothing.
I heard the crying of a baby in the hallway. Wouldn’t they have a separate maternity ward for babies? Maybe not in an infirmary. More likely a visitor had brought her baby with her. That would explain the wailing that came closer and closer to my room.
“Here he is!”
The nurse returned with a tiny, screeching bundle cradled in her arms. She came to the side of my bed to hand it to me. I glimpsed a pink, wrinkled face and tossed up my hands to ward it away.
“Take your son,” she said.
“What do you mean? He’s not my son. He can’t be.”
She looked at me with disbelief.
“Where’s his mother?” I demanded, not caring about her response. “Give him to his mother.”
“This child has no one but you,” she said.
“You’re mistaken,” I answered angrily.
“I never believed what they said until this moment—you are a dreadful man.” She looked ready to cry, and the squalling of the little creature had become incessant. “Unfortunately for this child, you are his only parent. His life depends on you.”
“No no no, you can’t intimidate me with nonsense.” I wasn’t going to let her burden me. “If I were the father, I would remember his mother. And I simply don’t.”
“Then why are you here?” Her face had turned red and she rocked the small bundle back and forth.
“I haven’t any idea,” I replied.
“Isn’t it odd,” she asked, “to be lying in an infirmary and not know why?”
“What you’re saying is impossible. That’s what matters.”
“There’s one other little fact,” she said. “This baby is hungry.”
“Then feed him! He’s making a racket.”
“The chart says he’s to be breast-fed.”
“Where is his mother?” I demanded with exasperation. “How many times do I have to ask you that?”
“You are his only parent,” she said loudly.
“Does the hospital supply wet nurses? If it doesn’t, you’ll have to feed him some other way.” Exhausting my limited knowledge of babies, I added, “With a bottle, I presume.”
“That’s not very nice. Don’t listen to him,” she cooed to the baby, then raised her face with an ominous expression. “I could report you to Child Services. They’ll find foster parents for this . . . There are people who yearn for children and can’t have them. Why you should have this gift is beyond my understanding.”
She scared me. What if she was right and this was my child? Would I want to be placed under a microscope by Child Services? Face endless interrogations by bureaucrats who have the power to remove the child to foster care? This baby couldn’t be mine, but what if I were wrong? If I let him go, I’d have to fight with Child Services to gain custody again. By the time I realized he was mine, he might already be adopted and I would lose my parental rights forever. Wouldn’t it be better to take the baby now and give him up if I learned I wasn’t his father?
“May I look at him?”
The nurse pouted and twisted her torso away from me to block my view.
This quiet word made her turn to face me and dip as if curtsying. I strained to sit farther up but couldn’t. Instead I turned my head to the side and saw bright blue eyes that stared into mine. My eyes are brown, not blue, and yet . . .
“I don’t see the resemblance,” I finally said.
“You have to give him time.”
“There are tests,” I said.
“Of course,” she answered, “but he’s hungry now.”
“Blood types, DNA . . .”
“Nonetheless, he’s crying because he’s hungry.”
“But what does that have to do with me?”
Holding the baby in the crook of one arm, she reached down with her free hand and lowered the top of my gown again. She unwrapped the baby and carefully placed him on my chest.
“He should feed eight to twelve times daily, but in two or three months the feedings will lessen. It’s important to learn to do it the right way. Hold him. You have to keep his head and body straight.”
I brought my hands to the warmth of his tiny torso.
“You have to touch the baby’s lower lip to your nipple, like this,” she continued, and began to lightly touch the middle of the baby’s lower lip to my right nipple. Before I could complain, the baby’s mouth gaped open. The nurse grasped me with her fingers below my nipple and her thumb above. Quickly she moved the baby so his mouth latched on to me.
“What are you doing?”
“But he’s . . .”
“Of course he is.”
“I’m a man,” I protested.
“Even expectant fathers produce hormones for milk.” She spoke calmly, her voice soothing so as not to disturb either the baby or me. “Of course, you’re much more than that. Unique.”
“It’s uncomfortable.” I had no idea a baby could suck with such force.
“Give it a minute. You should get used to the sensation.”
Perhaps to distract me from the voracious feeding, she continued to speak in a quiet voice.
“Make sure the baby’s nose isn’t blocked. If it is, raise his hips or let his head relax back slightly. Don’t”—she stressed the word—“move your breast to let the baby breathe, because that can make your nipple sore. He only needs one nostril for breathing.”
She had used the word “breast” and I certainly wanted to object, but I felt a gentle, pulling sensation from his lips and realized that his sucking had relieved the soreness I had felt in my . . . breast, the sense of tightness and pressure.
“When one breast feels empty, move the baby to the other breast.”
I wanted to argue, but a lassitude had come over me. I could feel the fullness of my other breast. Why hadn’t I realized how uncomfortable my condition was?
She inserted her index finger into the corner of the baby’s little mouth and separated his gums.
“Now move him to the other nipple.”
I did, and quickly his mouth gaped open again and I felt the initial pain as he encompassed my nipple.
“Good,” she said approvingly. “Just let him feed until he’s satisfied.”
As I lay there, I tried to recall boarding the night ferry. I couldn’t, and I had no idea what the ferry’s port of origin was or destination might be. I could hear the sucking and swallowing rhythm as the baby pulled some kind of essence from me. Even if I was having trouble remembering certain facts of my existence, I knew that I was . . . and remained . . . a man, and that I could not nourish such a child. Yet he took nourishment from me. How could my knowledge, my ideas about the shapes and purposes of the sexes, overcome the tiny, warm fact of this baby at my nipple?
“The night ferry,” I asked her, “where is it going?”
“It goes to a lot of places.”
“But where am I going?”
“I haven’t seen your ticket. I really don’t know.”
“Where did we start from? What port?” I asked.
“There isn’t a starting place. The ferry makes a circuit of cities, sometimes to the north, sometimes to south. It’s in constant motion from one place to another, but the itinerary is never the same. I don’t know who decides where the ship goes. I could tell you its nation of origin, but that’s pretty much meaningless.”
“Yes, please, what is it?”
As best I could recall, Liechtenstein was a tiny, landlocked tax haven.
“Can you tell me my name?”
“You’re kidding me,” she said, smiling pleasantly at what she imagined to be my humor. “But you do need to be thinking about names. The baby is going to need one. Do you know what you want to call him?”
I tried to think, but no names came to mind.
“I really don’t know.”
“We have a little book,” she said brightly. “I’ll find it for you.”
She hurried out of the room, leaving me with the baby’s warmth on my chest, his insistent pull on my nipple, and the rhythmic, gradually slowing sounds of his feeding.
“I found it,” she said on her return a few minutes later. She placed a slender book on the side table and looked at the baby. “He’s finished. You have to burp him.”
He had released my nipple and closed his eyes.
“Put his head here.” She placed a small white towel on my shoulder. “Now you gently pat and rub his back. Like this.”
She showed me by moving her hand. I began to imitate her. Soon the baby released air and a little milk.
“That’s enough,” she said, taking the towel and patting around his mouth. “Offer him the other nipple again, just in case he’s still hungry.”
I did as she said, but the baby wouldn’t open his mouth.
“He’s ready for a nice nap. I’m going to wrap him up and put him beside you. Keep him on his back to be safe.”
She wrapped him in the swaddling cloth again and placed him by my side.
“He’ll probably sleep until he’s ready to nurse again. I’ll be back a little later.”
“I can’t move my legs,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she replied cheerily.
“They feel numb.”
“Give it a little time. You’ll be back to your old self soon enough.”
She dimmed the ceiling lights and left us alone. A sudden fear for the baby came over me. I could feel him in the crook of my arm. So tiny. I understood why the safety bars had been raised on the sides of the bed. But what if I rolled over in my sleep and smothered or crushed him? I tried to shift from side to side but couldn’t move at all. So he was safe for now.
Opening the little book, I let my eyes fall on a name at random. “Zion, Hebrew. A sign, excellent.” Did that fit this baby? Honestly, who could know? I fanned the pages and alighted on another name. “Bryant, Irish. Kingly.” A king? I went deeper into the book. “Kambo, African. Must work for everything.” Will his life be difficult, a struggle for small rewards, fleeting joys, and even survival? I moved forward and found “Omar, Arabic/Persian. Highest, follower of the prophet, reverent.” Moving toward the front, I came across “Kazuo, Japanese. Man of peace.” How could I know who or what this baby might someday be? If indeed he proved to be mine, my choice of a name would only express my hopes for him.
I put the book aside, but the room held nothing to interest me. Closing my eyes, I wished for sleep or a memory, a clue. After a while, I could feel the mattress quivering. I touched the bed’s safety bars and felt the vibration there too. Then I realized that it must be an emanation of the engine throbbing at the heart of the ship, the engine that propelled thousands of tons of metal through the soft body of the sea.
Could he really be my son? I tightened my arm slightly about the swaddling. If he wasn’t, why had they given him to me? Did it really matter? He had shown his need for me, his hunger for what I could offer him. I was willing . . . I wanted to give him what I could. When this ship found a port, I decided, I would disembark with my child and start a new life.
The lights in the room brightened. I opened my eyes and saw the nurse. Had she discovered that I was not the child’s father and come to take him to his mother?
“Everything okay?” She stopped by the side of the bed to look at the sleeping baby.
She checked the monitors. I realized that this was just a routine visit.
“Do you have children?”
“Yes.” She smiled, still looking at my vital signs. “I have a boy.”
She turned to face me. “He’s eight.”
I wanted to ask her something more. “It’s good, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” she answered firmly.
“But don’t you miss him, traveling the way you do?”
“He’s on the ship.”
“What about school?”
“There are classes on the Internet, even for kindergarten. I teach him myself.”
“And your husband? How often do you see him?”
“Every day. He’s the captain.”
“The captain?” At first I wondered whether to believe her, but she showed no sign of joking with me.
“Don’t you miss firm ground?” I asked. “Does the ship ever stop for a month or two so you can have a change of scene?”
“Once in a while we get off the ship. But it’s like a little city. We’ve gotten used to it. And interesting people are constantly coming and going.”
“When will I be well?”
“In a few days.”
“I’ll be able to leave?”
“And the baby?”
“He could go now. He’s fine.”
“I don’t have my passport. Does the baby need paperwork?”
“I’m sure my husband knows what to do.”
Could I speak to him?”
“He’s on the bridge. I’ll ask him to come when he has a break.”
She lowered the lights as she left. I drifted in and out of sleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen daylight. Later—I must have been dreaming—I was in a palm-thatched cottage perched at the ocean’s edge. I’d always wanted a parrot, and from a trader at the local market I’d bought a yellow-crested cockatoo that chattered in some foreign tongue to the boy and me.
“You asked to see me?”
I was startled by the voice and the white fluorescence of the ceiling lights. The man in the doorway looked to be in the prime of life, wiry and certain of himself. He wore a dark uniform with golden buttons and a round white hat with a black shiny brim.
“How can I help you?” He came to the bedside and glanced at the tiny baby.
“We’re ready to leave the ship.”
“I hope you’ve enjoyed the voyage.”
“Oh yes.” I wanted to be agreeable, although I remembered nothing before waking a little while earlier. “Do you have my passport?”
“We have it in the ship’s safe. You can have it whenever you’re ready.”
“I’m concerned about paperwork for the baby. Is there going to be red tape?”
“I don’t see why there should be.”
“But he has no birth certificate.”
“I will prepare the documents for birth at sea. You can re-register him after that to obtain a birth certificate from the ministry.”
I should have known. After all, a captain at sea has the power to join passengers in marriage, preside over births, perform final rites. But because of his power, I had feared he might raise an objection.
“Will we come to port soon?” I asked.
“In three days.”
“The port, is it sunny?”
“Yes, the latitude is southerly.”
“We’ll disembark there,” I said.
Surely I had worked before I boarded the night ferry. Wherever we landed, I would recover my skills and apply myself to earning what we would need to pay for our shelter, our food, and, eventually, my son’s education. That would be the most important of all—his education. Whatever his name and whatever he might become, I wanted him to live to the fullest.
“There is one small problem,” the captain said.
It had been too easy. His words snatched the breath from my lungs.
“You haven’t used the full value of your ticket.”
“Is there a refund?” I asked, wondering if he meant I would have difficulty being reimbursed for the unused portion of the itinerary.
“No. According to the contract you signed, there are no refunds.”
“I signed a contract?”
“Yes, everyone does. You may have thought it was just a formality, but we follow the contractual provisions very closely.”
“What is the problem?” I asked.
“This ship never returns to a port. Its charter forbids that.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s always been that way. I don’t know the reason, but the implication is clear.”
“Yes?” I had no inkling of what he was trying to say.
“In the contract you agreed to travel until the fare has been completely used up.”
“I agreed to that?” I asked with alarm.
“But I want to disembark.”
“And your son has no ticket.”
“What are you saying?” I tried to raise myself in the bed, but I could only lift my forearms to the tops of the safety bars.
He raised his open palms to calm me.
“Please, please. These aren’t insurmountable problems.”
“But what’s the solution?” I asked.
The captain pondered for a moment. Finally, he said, “If I allow you to disembark at our next stop, can I count on you to live up to your obligation?”
“Disembark with my son?”
“That you will use up the remaining portion of your fare.”
I frowned, because I didn’t see how this could be done. Why couldn’t I simply forfeit the balance of the fare?
“At a time of your choosing,” the captain continued, “you will consult the ship’s itinerary and meet us when we make landfall. Then from that time until your ticket has been fully used up, you will remain a passenger aboard our ship.”
“And my son?”
“If he wishes to journey with you, he must purchase his own ticket.”
If I wanted to leave the ship, I had to agree, so I nodded my acceptance.
“Here’s the document for you to sign. It amends our original agreement. Read it carefully,” he said, handing me the papers.
I glanced at the lines of black type, but the words meant nothing to me.
“Does it seem to be in order?” he asked, when I rested the papers on the blanket.
“Excellent,” he said. “We’ll get this all taken care of. When you’re up and about, I want you to join us for champagne in the officers’ mess. A little celebration for you and the boy.”
He offered me a pen. My right arm remained around the bundled baby beside me, so I took it in my left hand.
“Here,” he said gently, supporting my hand with his. “If you can’t write your name, the company will accept your mark.”
With trembling fingers, I carefully made an X. T
Tad Crawford, A67 (http://www.tadcrawford.com), is the author of The Secret Life of Money and a dozen other nonfiction books, chiefly on the business lives of artists and writers. He is also the founder and publisher of Allworth Press, in New York City. “The Night Ferry” is excerpted from his new novel, A Floating Life (Arcade Publishing).