She suspected the nameless monstrosity had an eye for her cargo: six bags, tightly wrapped in waterproof cloth, anchored to the wall in the belly of the ship. This cargo could not be lost, could not be harmed, not by the sea, nor by man, beast, nor the shadow. Especially her shadow. If she had to die protecting the bags, she would.
Bobbing along, her vessel was the only thing visible on the endless blue expanse of water and sky. She was alone here, tossed by an unknown sea, sailing toward an unknown destination she might never reach. When she’d first found herself on this pitch-black yawl on the open sea, she had thought of giving the sea a name but was afraid she’d get it wrong. The wrong name was like a disease that killed you slowly. It could make you disappear. Ohno wasn’t willing to take that risk. She decided to call it Sea and promptly fell head over heels in love with it.
Sea was beautiful, boundless, and dangerous, like a dream lover with a lethal touch. On days like this, when it was calm, Ohno liked to lounge on the deck and allow herself to be enchanted by the blue magic surrounding her. She let the salty breeze caress her face and soothe her quivering nerves as she listened to the flapping sails, contemplated the horizon, and imagined herself a queen in exile, journeying to some exotic land to reunite with her royal beloved. Sometimes she went as far as conjuring up her beloved’s bearded face, his lips kissing hers, a smile in his sea-blue eyes. But the image made her heart race and her cheeks flush until she lay helpless, bathed in tears.
The truth was she had no beloved, royal or otherwise, and in all likelihood, she was not a queen, or even a noblewoman. Aside from her name—Ohno Hoia—she knew nothing of her own identity or where she’d come from. Like the fish beneath her keel, she had no memories, only hunches and dreams.
With the shadow driven out of the cockpit, Ohno retreated to her stateroom. It was dim and damp, and that was just the way she liked it. Her quarters had everything she needed—except a mirror. Whoever had built this vessel hadn’t considered it a necessity, and so the shape and color of her own face remained a tantalizing mystery. The glimpses she’d caught in the cockpit’s instrumentation were gauzy, distorted. Her hair was long and messy (she didn’t need a mirror to figure that out), and from the strands she found on her pillow from time to time, she knew it was turning gray.
She sat at the small desk and gulped from a half-empty bottle of Dictador rum, a bittersweet concoction that burned her throat but lifted her spirits. She needed that today. Waiting for the liquid flames to reach their destination, Ohno opened her captain’s log and wrote in fiery red ink: The sea has calmed. Sailing east … She hesitated and added a fat, curvy question mark, and then another.
The logbook was full of question marks, writhing all over the pages like little snakes. Who am I? What year is it? Am I dead? Am I mad? Thirty-six entries, no dates, written in her own unsteady hand. Entry number one was a scribble she couldn’t even read, followed by a long line of bleeding question marks. That was the day she’d found herself on the boat, the day she had begun, as a concept and not just a thing. Before that there had been nothing but darkness, and as hard as she tried, Ohno could not place herself in the world she must have inhabited before her life as a captain … if she could even call herself that. She had a body. She had a name. She must have existed for quite some time before waking up on this boat and scrawling the first entry. But who or what she was—or any detail about her past—remained a lost memory. And her imagination was not much of a help lately. As the days slipped by in dreary monotony, the distinction between the two—what she knew and what she imagined—was rapidly blurring.
The Dictador was working its potent magic.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, the ship bell rang from foredeck.
Ohno dropped the pen and sat up straight, her eyes wide. The pleasant, Dictador-induced oblivion evaporated, and her senses snapped back into focus. Ding, ding, ding, ding. Her shadow was up to some malicious mischief again. Will it ever end? Ohno thought wearily, as she grabbed her stick and stepped out of her stateroom.
It took immeasurable self-control not to launch at the foul foe and try to strangle it with her bare hands, but the last time she’d tried that, the shadow’s unbearable cold had burned her skin and penetrated her flesh to the bone. It was as solid as a block of black ice, only icier. And somehow hollow. Her shadow was not of this world, and she could not touch it.
She waited a few feet away, watching it thrash the bell rope. Malice oozed out of it like pus—every kind of wickedness, and worse. Give it a name? What was she thinking? That thing didn’t deserve a name. And how could she keep beating up an entity with a name?
“I’m calling you It,” she muttered, hitting It as hard as she could.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The bell tolled furiously as Ohno battered her shadow. Her hands had gone numb, but she didn’t stop until It let go of the rope and leaped overboard, spreading its harpy wings.
After the thousand little tasks a solo sailor must attend to, Ohno returned to her cabin. She would have preferred to spend the afternoon in the pleasant company of Dictador, but the earlier ordeal would not let her soul rest. Fear spread inside her like mold. What if I never find land? Dying of thirst and starvation, with nobody but It by her side, seemed like the loneliest way to go. Another question arose, unanswerable like most of her questions: What happens to my shadow when I die? There must be a place where all shadows go.
There is. It’s called hell, the tiny voice inside her whispered. Ohno nodded in agreement. In a way, she envied It. It didn’t have a name, but It seemed to know what It was and why It was there. The shadow was free—of form, of thought, and even of time, the cruelest of prisons. Even without a mirror, Ohno knew she wasn’t immune to the ravages of time. She had a body, and it was getting old. She knew it deep inside her aching bones. Hers was not a young body. But what kind of body was it? Was she even a human? And what does it even mean—being human?
For the hundredth time, she examined her large, stiff hands. There was something wrong with them. She couldn’t explain how she knew it, but the faint disgust at the sight of her hands told her that it indeed was so. And then it hit her—the number! Twelve! She had twelve fingers; it was two too many for a body like hers. She turned her palms up and down, wiggled her fingers, and smiled happily. Yes, her body must be human. Abnormal, but human nonetheless. And again, she could not explain how she knew it, only that she did.
Then it occurred to her that she knew many things she had no memory of, and the source of this knowledge was more obscure than the mysteries lurking at the bottom of the ocean. How was that possible? She knew of seas, and lakes, and rivers; and birds, and cows, and dogs; and, yes, of shadows. She knew things in an innate way that only a human would. She knew of them without ever having seen them, or so it seemed.
Ding … Ding … From the foredeck again. A gentle, musical sound. Not the obnoxious one her shadow had made earlier today. Ohno frowned and made her way back to the foredeck, stepping cautiously and clutching her stick. Just in case.
The sun was hovering over the western horizon, bidding the day a luminous farewell. The sea turned into liquid gold, and the brass ship bell became a shining star with an amber halo. And there, on top of the bell, in the middle of the halo, was perched a creature of a most unusual kind. Its small, oval, wonderfully curved body was of the whitest white. On a smooth, supple neck sat a black head with two eyes the color of the sun. The creature held its gaze for what seemed like an eternity, cooed softly, and took off with one powerful flap of its wings.
A bird, the voice within whispered.
“A bird …” Ohno repeated, following the trajectory of the creature’s flight, higher and higher, until it became a distant dot on the flaming horizon.
Ding … Ding … The bell rang, swinging slightly from the release of the bird’s talons.
Still under the spell of the vision, Ohno stared at the bell—for the hundredth time. “Umbra, 1999” was etched on its surface in bold, black letters. Her brain itched; some memory was digging its way out into the open like a worm. Umbra, short for umbrella? No, that was nonsense. Nobody would name their ship after something so ordinary as an umbrella. Then it hit her—the number! The year the ship had launched was 1999! Judging from the vessel’s considerable wear and tear, the current year wasn’t the year 1999. Perhaps 2020, give or take. Ohno’s heart skipped a beat, and then, as if someone pushed a lever inside her, all the tension of the day dropped away like an iron suit of armor. Suddenly she became aware of a cool evening breeze caressing her thighs, her breasts, her half-naked shoulders. Every cell of her body was singing in childlike delight, and her lavish torso shook as she laughed.
Time! She had found time. She had found her century: the twenty-first! It was like finding a long-lost treasure, like rediscovering a limb you thought was gone. Why would she ever think that time was a prisoner? Time was a treasure, a liberator, the best friend a lone traveler could have.
“The twenty-first century.” Ohno whispered the delicious words under the darkening sky. The moon had risen now. Silver-capped waves broke gently over the yawl’s bow.
There hadn’t been a better day in Ohno’s life; of that, she was almost entirely sure. She was of the twenty-first century. Ancient civilizations with their human sacrifices and slavery were in the past, a long gone past. So were the Middle Ages; thank God for that. She wouldn’t get burnt at the stake, or die in misery coughing up her own plague-infested lungs. She wasn’t in some bleak, post-apocalyptic time, and there was no toxic fire sweeping the earth. All of those horrors were in the past, or in the far distant future. Now was the twenty-first century, the age of reason, of justice, of liberty, and may be even love. Humankind must have achieved the impossible by now, and is standing on three unfailing pillars: freedom, truth, and beauty. This was the world she could not wait to inhabit, to embrace, and upon which to unload her precious cargo.
She would find the land, the land of the beautiful and of the free. She would do what she must, and then … Who knows? She smiled dreamily to the moon. Perhaps the sweet strawberry lips of her beloved would kiss her, and there would be love, and even something she would be able to call home.