Ghosts of Nagasaki (Excerpt) – Going Overboard

I walk to the restaurant. There, the lady of the ryokan’s brother is outside waiting, smoking a cigarette. Even though it’s eight o’clock in the morning, he already looks slightly drunk, perhaps the remainder of a hard night of drinking.


“You better eat up,” he says. “You’ll need your strength.”


As this sounds like sensible advice, I nod my head.


“I guess this isn’t the first time you’ve had to make this trip, is it?” I say.


“My sister told you, eh?”

He leans forward and looks me dead in the eyes. “It always happens the same way, you know.”


“What do you mean?”


“You’ll see. Eat up.”


I walk into the restaurant, settle down, and do just that.

We get to the dock and there is a boat waiting for us, ready to go. The captain is an older man, middle-aged perhaps, but unlike other Japanese fisherman, aged by years of sea and hard work, he seems to carry an extra bit of charisma for just such occasions.


“Aw, this one is an American,” he says. “I thought it would be a Cambodian or an African for sure. Well, better get on board. The gods will give us no more than an hour of good weather.”


He says this to me and nothing else. It’s at this point that I realize that we’ve neglected to talk about a price. I wonder briefly if the money in my pocket is enough, but then decide that it’s better not to ask any questions at this point.




I get onto the large fishing boat and suddenly realize that I’ve forgotten to buy anti-nausea medicine. I will in all likelihood have to hurl several times between here and our destination.


“Are you okay?” the brother asks me.


“Fine,” I say.


The boat gets underway. The captain hands me a raincoat to keep the rain off me. We’ve only gone a short distance before the captain attempts to make some small talk.


“So what do you think of Japan so far? Do you like it?”


“Oh yeah, it’s very nice,” I say.


“Business has been very poor for fishermen lately. My son wants to grow up to be a businessman. He’s studying English right now. He will probably move to Tokyo and be some hot shot. He makes very good grades, you know. I wish he would just stay with us, though, and become a fisherman. That way my wife and I wouldn’t be so lonely. But that’s the way things work, I guess.”


“All that is fades to dust,” I say in English, because I cannot translate this into Japanese.


He doesn’t respond, just stares out over the sea. After a while, the fisherman asks me, “How about you? Your parents must miss you.”


I see the brother flash the boat captain a dirty look.


“I never knew my parents,” I say.


“Oh, an orphan. I see. Not knowing your parents must be rough, but then there are many things in life that aren’t so easy. Am I wrong?”


Somehow, I detach from what the boat captain is saying. I focus on something. Something in my head is solidifying. I am readying myself for something, though I have no idea what it is.


I see the two men securing everything they can find, tightening their raincoats.


“Not much time now,” the boat captain says. “We must ask that you pay us.”

“What? Why?”

“Because soon the weather will pick up, and we will not be able to go any farther.”

“But I need to get to the island.”

“I’m sorry, but it is the will of the gods. And my mortgage still needs to be paid.”


I reach into my wallet and hand him some money. The captain looks at me and laughs. “It’s not like you’ll need much money where you’re going.”

I wonder if this is a signal to pay him more. I consider giving him a few more thousand yen notes, but then decide against it.

The rain picks up, and soon I find that the wind is kicking up higher and higher waves. As predicted I find myself spewing my breakfast over the side of the ship.

“Careful there,” the captain says. “I wouldn’t want you falling overboard.”

The boat continues on its way, but soon the waves become impossibly high, impossibly intense. I try my best to hold in the rest of my breakfast. The captain and the brother look at each other. They’re talking something over now. Against the wind, I can hear bits and pieces of their conversation in Japanese.

“. . . I don’t think he can make it in this condition . . .” the captain says.

“. . . diajyobu, diajyobu . . . (it’ll be okay)” the brother reassures.

I notice now that the boat has come to a stop. They just stare at me like some odd science experiment.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “What am I supposed to do now?”

The brother points out into the fog. “They all swim that way. There is no island out that way, but they always swim out that way nonetheless.”

They? What on earth is he talking about?

“Once you get into the water, you will need to start swimming immediately or else you will drown,” the captain offers. He walks around from behind his steering wheel with a bottle of shochu. He takes a swig and hands me the bottle.

“There is no way to really know the will of the gods,” he says. “But what we know is that they all swim that way.”

I look out into the fog. “That can’t be right,” I say.

The two men shrug.

I take the shochu bottle and swallow a good portion. The taste lingers on my tongue like gasoline, and I end up vomiting one more time.

The boat captain shakes his head. I can tell he thinks I’m a goner.

I turn to the brother first. “I hope your sister has a happy, healthy baby,” I say to him, and he nods. Next, I turn to the fishing boat captain. “I hope your son grows up to be a rich businessman or fisherman, fluent in English, with an appreciation for his father.” The fishing boat captain nods an acknowledgement.

I look off the side of the boat again into the fog. Then I look down off the edge of the boat into the water. I see a young woman swimming just

below the surface. She wouldn’t even be visible if it weren’t for her bright red shoes. Suddenly, I know everything is going to be all right.

I jump overboard.




In the water, I search for her. The storm comes. Pouring rain, it soaks my cynicism, making it heavier, pulling me to the bottom. I do as the captain said and begin to swim as hard as I can. My head bobs out of the water and is lost in the fog. Only when I put my head in the water can I see her bright red shoes.

I swim for what feels like ages. My body grows thin from lack of nourishment, old with greying hair. My bones tug forcefully against my skin. Soon I will swim my life away. By the time I reach the island, I will be an old man.

But it doesn’t matter.

Reaching the island is all that matters. I realize that this is the battle of my very real present, and so all other battles―past and future―collapse into this one.

Sitting in that hospital with the bureaucrats next door, I grow older. Not conscious, yet somehow aware, Debra smiles at me. This is how it is, her smile says to me. But there’s more to it than that. With Debra there is always more to everything.

Somehow, I can’t let it go. It accumulates. The slight of a hospital administrator, Chuck’s long sighs, and my weighty heart slip into a ball and chain around my ankle.

When I reach back to take the chain off my ankle, it’s like I’m reaching into the past, asking Chuck for his money again. I slip downward and I’m sure I’m going to be sucked back with the tide, to land and my cynical youth.


And now I’m in the future. I find myself walking, zombie-like, from task to task, avoiding desperate office ladies, barely getting my reports done on time, and chasing young women at the local Tokyo university bars. I feel hopelessly disconnected for a moment, and it occurs to me that I may be lost in this ocean forever.

And then I see her. The girl. She’s in the ocean with me, with her red shoes, and she grabs my hand and guides me. I see her face. No longer sad or downcast―now resolute and powerful. She pulls me, her strength greater than the tide, the cynicism, and my lead heart combined. Somewhere in the depths of the ocean, my memories, no more real than history, fall to the bottom. I close my eyes and become as superreal as the spirits.

If you’re interested in reading the full version of “Ghosts of Nagasaki,” a kindle copy can be purchased here for 99 cents here:

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