by Nicola Koh
And I saw a new heaven
and a new earth:
for the first heaven
and the first earth
were passed away;
and there was
John of Patmos
Midway along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood
The noon sun forces my eyes down.
“Don’t be afraid, sister,” a voice says, quietly. “No one is harmed by the light.”
A short but stocky man with a neatly trimmed mustache. He is uniformed, like the people on the lower deck, in a white that blazes. But he’s right, staring doesn’t hurt. The three pins on his lapel are a cross, a flame, and a dove.
“I remember the sea,” I say, though my last memory was Fort Wayne in landlocked Indiana. A business trip. I stayed with a friend whose roommate offered me shrooms.
But again I say, “I remember the sea. An infinity of cold and darkness to swallow.”
Reflexively, I grip my arms. I probably shouldn’t have taken narcotics from strangers.
“Welcome aboard the Bride of Christ.” The man smiles. “My name is Peter. I am first-mate.”
“The captain?” I ask.
Peter turns and looks up to what must be the bridge, a white tower with a single window wrapping around the top, like a visor. But Peter’s eyes pull higher. The shadow of a person whose hands grip a wheel at the top of the tower. White dots of sunlight glinting through each hand.
“Is this heaven?”
“No, but we’re going there,” Peter replies.
A siren wails. Peter’s eyes sharpen.
The white-clad figures on the deck are running as if madness has come upon them. The ship shakes violently.
“We are under attack,” Peter says. He might as well be announcing dinner.
Twin mountains of black emerge from the horizon. Ships with so many guns they look like floating cactuses. Their thorns bloom red and orange and yellow, and pillars of sea rise around the Bride of Christ. The ship shudders again and again.
Swaying to keep my balance, I say, “When my father hit my mother, I would scream. My mother would yell at him, and I would run and hide.”
“There is no need to fear,” Peter says. “Our enemies are mighty, but mightier still is he that is for us.”
The ship rocks, leaning so far it feels like falling.
“My father would find me in the closet after my mother drove away, clutching one of his work boots. I would hug him until he stopped crying,” I say. “When my mother came back, I would wrap ice in the kitchen towel, hold it to her eyes. Wait for it to freeze her tears, too.”
“Do not forget,” Peter says, “we are not without weapons.”
The Bride of Christ shudders, but this time from some internal force. Columns of white, wider than I am tall, emerge from the side of the ship and tilt towards the black mountains. The air shatters from the cannon boom. Fire snakes around the black ships, like a constrictor.
“The longer the peace between my parents, the more my stomach would writhe,” I say. “Sometimes, I wished they would get it over with. The way you want to throw up after being nauseous for days.”
The Bride makes its way through the flaming wrecks. The smell of burning gasoline fills the air. The siren ceases and Peter smiles at me
“I always regretted this wish,” I say.
I walk around the deck talking to the sailors. They bear many titles. Pastor. Priest. Missionary. Elder. Deacon. Presbyter. Bishop. Worship Leader. Conciliar.
There are women, too, who append Wife to their own titles.
Some of the men call themselves Fathers. But none call themselves Husband.
I can’t figure out how the titles relate to the hierarchy. Why do some pastors bow to this conciliar? Why does this bishop yield to that priest? Some pastors spent many years in seminary; some, just a few; others, none at all. It doesn’t seem to affect their ranking.
The lines between the sailors do not fall neatly like on a map. I find sermon note cards and make charts of overlapping circles of influence. But day-to-day the dynamic changes, and my charts grow obsolete faster than meat rots in the sun.
I am surprised that there is meat here, thought only of wafers. But, “Man does not live on bread alone.” So the sailors tell me. They get drunk on wine or grape juice.
I make friends with Jenny, who regularly shines the pin she wears until it’s so glossy I can barely make out the open bible and pulpit. Most of the sailors talk to her left shoulder, as if it would hurt to look at the pin. Most do not call her Pastor.
I admire her spunk. She reminds me of my roommate from college who took part in the topless march every year and gave a black eye to a creep who was hitting on me at the bar once.
A fire breaks out on the deck and a bucket chain forms. The sailors take turns running to the flame while the women draw the buckets from the sea. But there is Jenny, standing in line, the men on either side passing the bucket over her. Jenny runs to the women to get a bucket of her own, but the Wives studiously ignore her. Eventually some of the men leave the chain and form another that includes Jenny. Now each chain is stretched thin. When Jenny throws her bucket into the fire, some of the men from the other chain quit altogether. The fire is small and largely burns itself out.
I ask Jenny why she does it.
“You can’t ignore the Captain’s call. Not even when others tell you to,” Jenny says. “Women have every right to the work.”
“My father never graduated college and worked shift jobs his whole life,” I say. “My mother paid most of the bills. She was a psychiatrist.”
“The gifts of leadership come only from the Captain. Why would he give me the gifts if he didn’t want me to use them?” Jenny says.
“My mother said that the evolution of the human race was an evolution of the mind, not the body. My father hated how she pitied him. When she called him fragile and incapable of expressing himself without his fists, when she talked about cycles of abuse, he would slap her.”
“A man is meant to lead,” an old sailor growls in interruption.
I know not to take the bait, but Jenny must not have learned this.
She argues with the sailor, responding first in patience, then in frustration. As her voice rises, the sailor calls her hysterical. He points to the black dots in on the horizon.
“Let women be sailors,” he says, spitting, “and we’ll be no better than Sodom.”
Jenny screams, “Slippery slope!”
Tears splash from her eyes.
Every iota of difference is a point of furious and hostile division. But the arguments seem to have less to do with the actual points of debate than with whose uniform is whiter. They glare at me when I point out that the uniforms come closer to beige and cream and vanilla. I ask why not a color that doesn’t need so much bleach.
They say: “He washes us whiter than snow.”
I don’t point out the Wives do the laundry.
“It was snowing the day my parents sat me down, my second winter break from college,” I say instead. “I hoped they would say they were getting a divorce. But then they told me I was going to have a brother.” The sailors are silent, so I continue. “I remember the snowflakes, large and whiter than their widening sclera when I told them this was the last time I would live with them.”
This sparks a debate as to whether I broke the commandment, Honor Thy Parents.
“Why does Peter look different every day?” I ask to break up the squabble.
The sailors don’t know who or what I’m talking about, and disperse to their separate rooms, still arguing.
I lean on the rail. The sun bleeds into the horizon.
There is a storm that brings waves almost to the height of the ship. When Pastor Ted is discovered with a man again, the sailors know the reason for the storm. He does not repent this time. The sailors, for their part, do not ask him to. Ted’s head shakes, but he holds his chin up as he is marched onto the little raft off side of the ship.
The sailors prepare the rite of Jonah. It is long and involves the sailors talking about unrepentant rebellion and excommunication. They say this with their backs to Ted. Then they turn to him to pray that he will see the errors of his ways and return to the command of the Captain. They lift their hands towards him, not quite making eye contact. Ted lifts his hand towards them, looking each of them in the face. Then Pastor Jenny winches him down.
I know it’s pointless to tell them that Peter today is haggard as he looks upon the small boat struggling against the waves before it is swallowed. Or how Peter’s long and straggly beard does not hide the twisting of his mouth.
But I tell them anyway.
I ask Peter why he built this ship.
“We were told to.”
But when I find a Gideon’s Bible in the mess hall, beneath the leg of a table, a Bible that hasn’t had lines blacked out like all the others, I can’t find a place where the Captain tells anyone to build anything.
“We do not preach a gospel of revolt,” Peter says after I point this out to him.
I say, “I married a man because he never fought with me. He would eat half a rotisserie chicken because that’s what I brought home. It took him years to admit he hated chicken.”
Peter studies me and sighs. “Without this ship, we would have been scattered.”
“Ash loved me. But I didn’t believe it. I slapped him. I called him pathetic. I told him not to see his friends. And he did it all for me,” I say. “A love like that is scary.”
“This ship has done great things,” Peter says.
“A love like that has to be let go.”
The cannons boom and Peter leaves.
I have been told never to go into the engine room. The engine room is for believers, not sinners, especially not ones wearing hip-clutching jeans and cleavage-bearing blouses—forest green when it isn’t even Easter.
I don’t believe in sin, though I believe in wrong. Pushing my college roommate away when she was suicidal because I didn’t realize tears could be more than tools of manipulation—that was wrong. Never talking to her again because I couldn’t bear the guilt, especially when she told me she forgave me—that was also wrong.
But I don’t believe in sin, so I enter the engine room.
A stadium could fit in here. It’s sweltering, but the heat isn’t coming from any fire. Thousands of people, tens of thousands, chains around their necks attached to a massive gear above them, walking in a circle to spin in. Other gears are built on this central one, stacked on each other like the inside of a clock.
There are little gaps in the swirling horde where one or another stumbles. An old man goes down, his hand lifted as if in praise before he is swallowed.
Twelve sailors are reading from their Bibles, spaced at hours around the horde. There is a drum as large as a house and a crew of shirtless, sweat stained men who slam large sticks in unison. The chained ones shout “Hallelujah,” straining the third syllable on the beat.
The sailors never look up from their Bibles and the drummers’ faces crunch with concentration.
There is another room I have been told never to enter, but I ram down the door of the Bridge anyway.
In the center of the lounge are plush armchairs with fat white men sitting in them, clad in suits. Their shoes are off, and sailors wash their feet. There is a screen with ships. But these are not named Sodom nor The Devil nor Vice, nor any of the names the sailors bandy about. They are named Blacks and Oil and Wombs.
The faces they turn to me look exactly the same, filled with rage and fear.
The feet-washing sailors seize me and throw me into a cell. I lie on my bunk, beneath the words printed in black on the white wall. Bride of Christ.
The hum of the ocean is so loud down here, I lose track of the muted hallelujahs.
There is someone in the room, on the other side of the bars. An immensely familiar stranger.
“O Captain, my Captain,” I whisper. “Aren’t you supposed to be steering this thing?”
He shakes his head with a rueful smile. “I have never been a sailor.”
I run to the bars and hiss at him. “How can you allow this?”
“I can’t reach those who won’t see me,” the Captain says. “Not all have your propensity for seeing ghosts.”
The Captain leans back, folds his hands on his chest. There are holes in his wrists.
“I never believed in you,” I say.
The Captain shrugs. “Belief has little to do with reality.”
“But I hoped you might be true.”
I don’t realize I am crying until tears drip down the bars of the cell onto my hands.
“Let me go. Let me tell them.”
The Captain rises, touches my wet cheek. His fingers, calloused. “If you think it would help, go.”
He walks away, then looks at me. I clutch the bars, waiting for him to do something, but he simply walks through the wall.
I wait for him to come back. But he doesn’t.
There’s also no lock on my cell.
I finger the words The Bride of Christ. A corner is peeling. I rip it and there is red underneath the white. A scandalous red. I keep peeling until I come to a different set of letters. I tear at the wall, leave a ragged patch, like fresh blood on snow.
Printed in silver. Babylon the Great.
Nicola Koh is an MFA student at Hamline University, Their work has appeared in Word Riot, Hemeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, and Rain Taxi Review of Books. Passions include: love, justice, their relationships, honesty, and Tetris.