Aboard the Jamzebi Queen

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Jamzebi River:

Cockroaches skittered across the floor when Paul Radford opened the steel door to the sweltering heat of the riverboat cabin. In a moment more, the reddish mass of tiny scavengers disappeared: under the mosquito-netted, double-decker bunk; under the closeted kitchen sink; under piles of emptied cans, fish bones and cardboard containers kicked out of the way into the muck-ridden corners of the cabin.

“Stinking hole. Everything aboard this bucket stinks nowadays.” Radford turned on the light, which wavered with the limited power from the generators in the engine room several decks below; then he flicked on the overhead fan, which faltered in half starts. His attention drawn to the ragged moth-netting, fluttering with the stir of risen air at the two small windows of his stateroom, he scoffed, “Two out of four engines are working, the others cannibalized for spare parts.” With a tug on her hair, he dumped the fishwife on the floor by the small kitchenette table and two chairs.

Her mouth stoppered with a fist-sized drago that had nearly wrenched her jaws apart when he’d shoved it in, chipping her front teeth, she squirmed away from him across the iron-plated floor. While trying to pry the hairy coconut out of her mouth with bleeding fingers, she stared up at him with eyes wide in terror. Trying to dissuade him from whatever he intended, she shook her head, begging through her nose.

He kicked her in the stomach to shut her up; then, rolling her onto her back with his foot, he wedged his trekking boot under her chin. “Don’t move, or so help me.” He waited for her to quiet, to take her hands off his ankle and lay them flat by her thighs, her fingernails screeching up rust that had bubbled between the seams. “It wasn’t always like this,” he announced, as if embarrassed. “All the beautiful polished teak on the floors? Pried up from the iron plates for burning in the boilers. Why? Why, with the jungle on both sides of the Jamzebi? Too lazy to chop wood? Too cheap to buy from woodcutters upstream? What? What can excuse this?”

She stared up from the floor without answer, though he waited as if expecting a response, her dark eyes full of fear, her breathing constrained under his boot.

He continued to stare back for the longest time before shaking his head slightly in disgust and loathing, believing he knew the answer, as did most of the BaFrenzi. Satisfied that she would stay still, he lifted his foot off her throat and, looking at his hands, greasy with pomade from her hair, crossed the cabin to the kitchenette counter. “I remember when this steamboat was new. I was just a boy when I attended the commissioning ceremony, along with my father and the Grand Seigneur. She rode high in the water then, proud and beautiful. The brass rails and fittings shown like gold. And the crew, French-Dengan and black alike, were resplendent in starched white uniforms. Well-disciplined and schooled in their trade. Not like these ragtag boatmen.” Turning on the tap, he looked up over the sink at the framed picture of Lord Rambabwa, imperious in military uniform with a leopard skin across one shoulder and a hippo-hide whip in the opposing hand, arrogantly smiling down at him. Resisting the urge to tear it down, Radford scrubbed the pomade from his palms and between his fingers. “Now it’s a tub, barely kept afloat. What have you done to this country…with all its promise?”

The citoyenne tilted her head in his direction, believing she’d been addressed.

As a bell clanged from the prow, relaying the depth of the river, dragging him back to the moment, he wiped his hands dry on his khaki shorts and crossed the small cabin back to the kitchette table, muttering, canlı bahis “I had to tolerate your shit this afternoon, had to let you follow me around with every insult you could lay on me. All I could do was bide my time until dark.”

As he lifted his foot over her, she shut her eyes in anticipation of the boot at her throat.

But he simply straddled her then went down on one knee, his fingers at the top button of her shapeless dress. “You stink. You have the stink of fish all over you.” He undid the first button then, realizing that the row of nearly a dozen extended down to the hem, clasped both ends of her neckline and ripped the dress open, laying her bare on the rag. He stared down at her. “A no-bottom nigger. I should have known.”

She whimpered, with sniveling cries snorting out of her nose, even as she struggled to keep her hands at her sides, the fingers clenching and unclenching in a desperate urge to cover her pubis and breasts. Turning her head to the side, she cast a glance at the two small windows in hopes that someone on deck was still awake to peer in, to see what he was doing, to raise alarm.

“On your hands and knees,” he ordered, grasping her upper arm and flipping her over. “You’re going for a walk.” As she did what she was told, her massive breasts swinging back and forth, he urged her on with his boot to her ass, making her fall several times, the drago in her mouth clunking once on the iron plates. “Hurry up, bitch. Do you think I have all night.” Without bothering to open the bathroom door, making her reach up from her crawl to the latch handle, he booted her in so that she fell on her shoulder and dropped to her side…within.

As the least of what she noticed, she glimpsed the bare walls and meager appointments in the bathroom: without shower or bath, it had simply a toilet and washbasin which, like the kitchen sink, also drew water brown from the river, sometimes as clear as tea, more often the color of milky coffee. Without consciously noting, she saw that the washbasin and toilet were cast of a heavy, non-reflective bronze, bolted to the rusted iron plates, remnants of teak flooring still in evidence at the base of each. But what she did notice and try to understand was the contrivance he’d rigged. Knowing they were intended for her she stared at the sisal ropes hanging from the ceiling and trailing to the floor, the other ends partially wound to a hand winch. Seeing the ropes guided along a set of intricate pulleys he’d somehow found aboard and appropriated, she mewled through her nose, shaking her head violently, hoping that he had no such intention.

He reached down and slapped her hard across the face, spinning her head one way then the other with the force of the blows, blood redding the corner of her lip and the crease of her eye, mingling with her tears. “You have no opinions on what I do, one way or the other. Any more arguments?”

By then reeling, unable to focus, she shook her head, whimpering into the hollow of the coconut in her mouth.

“Then be a good girl. Those two snares,” he said, pointing to the loops at the ends of the ropes. “They go on your ankles. Put them on, tight.” And he raised the flat of his hand as if to strike her again, should she refuse.

Almost toppling over, her middle ear out of whack, she squirmed on her butt to the snares and looped them on her ankles, even anxious to comply, thankful for a momentary respite from the sting of his hand.

He then pointed to a trifle she had yet to notice for the elaborate contrivance of ropes: a leather dog collar, its chain leash wound around the base of the bronze toilet. “That’s for you too. Put it on.”

Unwilling to be so bahis siteleri humiliated, she shook her head…before she realized what she’d done, because he hit her in the face, tearing the inside of her cheek on the woody hull. She fell to her side, tasting blood, then weakly propped herself back up on one arm. Knowing her situation would only get worse, she pricked her ears for the bare-soled slap of footfalls outside the stateroom, anxious to hear a bridge officer scuttling about with a full bladder to the latrines on the lower deck. Hearing only the boat merchants’ resonant snores, the scuffled turnings in their sleep, the grunts and groans of nightmares and wet dreams, she shook her head at him again, this time less in refusal than in abject supplication, tears in her eyes, a catch in her throat, the taste of her blood.

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

She reached out for it, dragging the buckle listlessly across the iron plates of the bathroom floor, hardly aware of the ticklish sensation under her butt as the engines slowed then stopped before throbbing on again in reverse. Lifting her chin, she held the silver buckle and leather tongue to the back of her neck and notched it on, securing herself to the toilet.

“You’re pitiful,” he mocked. Reaching into his pocket, he leaned down on one knee beside a crushed cockroach and padlocked both ends of the collar onto her neck. Hawking sputum, he turned her face up and spit in her eye. “What happened to you, nigger? Where’s that in-your-face attitude now: the belligerence, the smart mouth, the mean looks?” Finished that, he smacked her behind the head in further expression of disdain.

The fight beaten out of her, she hung her head, sniffling as precursor to a full cry.

After disentangling one of the ropes, he clasped the crank on the cogwheel and turned it slightly until he heard the metal brake clack into the first cog. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll grab on to the toilet.” And he gave the crank several turns, completely pulling the slack out of the ropes. “Hang on, bitch.” He turned the crank again, pulling her onto her belly, her feet several decimeters off the floor. As he winched her up, the pulleys beginning to spread her legs apart, he smacked her hard on the ass, flesh on flesh. “Do you smell it?”

She winced, feeling the hot imprint of his hand on her bare buttocks, the reverberations of his slap traveling in ripples underneath the taut skin of her legs and back. As he continued to winch her up, she felt the strain of the collar at her neck, suddenly realizing that if he pulled her any higher she would strangle. Flouncing about for a handhold, she tried to hug the base of the toilet; failing that, with her gagging coughs blown out her nose, she grasped the flange of the toilet bowl, her bleeding fingers under the rim, one hand on each side.

While the engines cut in reverse then started the paddle wheel forward again, he winched her completely off the floor and kept turning the crank until her legs were spread nearly apart; and still he cranked her up, forcing the chain at her neck and her arms to their limits. When he heard a tendon crack underneath her trunk, he stopped, temporarily satisfied that she was as exposed as he could expect…without tearing her apart. “It’s the smell we all live with, that age-old smell that comes out of the jungle—that stench of trees, still green with the moss of the equatorial forest, rotting in a stagnant pool.”

Holding onto the toilet, trying desperately to pull enough slack on the leash so that she could breathe, she lost sensation in her legs, even as she felt the strain on her arms grow, felt them grow tired to letting go, felt the first bahis şirketleri shake of tremors deep in the muscle.

A hand on her calf, trailing it down to her thigh, Radford leaned over and smelled her, smelled the panic welling with her juices out of her. “It’s especially strong during the full moon when it’s carried on the bluedamp. It’s like…like no matter what pains we’ve taken, it was all for nothing; like, nothing the white man has done here, nothing we’ve accomplished in our entire history here, is going to mean anything in a hundred years or less. It’s as if the years will swallow it up…as ancient civilizations have been swallowed up. And only the bluedamp…only that…, only that will remain, as a vague reminder of the grand ambitions that once existed in the hearts and minds of good and worthy men…here…here and before—a century ago, a civilization ago, a forgotten age ago. It’s that smell, that smell of rot, like…like….” Toying with her fears, her terror, he gathered spit in his mouth then let it drivel to the pucker of her anus. Amused that it cringed shut, he then trailed his hand along her inner thighs and underneath her pelvis, doing it so lightly and lovingly that she didn’t expect the hard slap that followed, aimed forcefully down on her pudenda.

She bit down hard, breaking a molar on the hard shell of coconut, hairy fibers tearing off then floating at the back of her throat, swirling with the bit of tooth enamel. Blood rushing to her head, hot at her ears, she tried to turn her face to see how he could have slapped her there, violating that most intimate part of her. But then, unable to see more than his legs, the strain on her neck too great, she dropped her eyes, seeing for the first time the pile of newspapers which lay beside the toilet, the topmost issues yellowed in splotches by a male occupant who had missed the bowl. Raised high enough off the floor, she lifted her head and saw into the bronze fixture, stuffed with shredded strips of newspaper that had blocked it from further use, though someone had still deposited excrement atop the blockage. In a panic, she looked up as high as she could, seeing only a rusted metal screen which covered a vent to the outside, letting out the torrid heat and stench while letting in the occasional bleat of goats, the cluck of chickens…and the ever-present reek of jungle.

“Have you ever wondered why they call it the bush? The jungle, I mean.” He closed his eyes, seeing only the liana veils and misted wavering ferns, seeing the jungle thick with an other-worldly undergrowth that was opaline in bluedamp, even in darkest night…while furtive shadows of things barely human skulked in the further dark. Before he opened his eyes again, before he forced them open to keep from being swallowed up again, he heard the teeming canopies hundreds of meters above, heard the buzzing chirping snarling slithering cacophonies of the jungle in his tortured mind.

Breathing heavily, he blinked hard twice, recovering himself. “Because, to a man who’s been lost in there, hearing the sucking mud underfoot, feeling the leeches on his back, he’ll make any deal to find himself again. That smell…that smell. That’s what reminds him of how desperate he is to survive, to have the civilization he’s created survive him.” Unbuttoning his shirt, which was sopping with sweat at the collar and down his back, he slapped her on the ass again, saying, “Some people think a woman smells like fish; did you know that? In reality, she smells of the jungle…with its cloying stench of fungus-borne spoor and age-old rot. That smell…that smell….” He shook his head, unable to find the words, ending instead with, “It’s the ancient remembrance of life, of the way it used to be, that it should never go back to.” Seeing her struggle to maintain a hold on the flange, to keep from being strangled upside down, he leaned his face over her crotch…and took a deep whiff.

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