A few nights ago I had a vivid dream which has stayed with me. These are the details.
I am a guest on an antebellum steamboat that is crossing the Atlantic. The restored ship is a pristine white expression of a bygone era. It is a floating anachronism that sways like a lazy hammock on a plantation porch. The sky is incredibly blue, and the sun bathes the ship with a dreamy haze that sets it apart from the starkness of the sky and the ocean. In this way, when perceived from the outside, the ship seems almost ghostlike, as it sifts in and out of the haze. For the people on the deck, though, the ship is as strong and sturdy as their own heightened place in society. Everyone on the deck is handsome, rich, white, stately: The men are clad in white suits with a gentle breeze of color in their bowties and handkerchiefs; the women are happy, floral adornments clutching to their men’s arms or replacing their mint juleps. Everyone is middle-aged or older, widening around the waist, sagging beneath the chin, and wincing when they happen to glance up at the sun. There is little wincing, though, for they have little interest in the environment above, below, or around them. For the most part, the afternoon cocktail party may as well be happening back in their country club lodge beneath the stately glare of the club founder. They are on the ocean for no other reason than that it is an extravagance they can afford. I share in their life of soft pleasantries. They are neither smart nor engaging people, but there is no doubt that they are the best people.
There is a sudden blast in the bowels of the ship. The stern wheel snaps into pieces and paddle blades fly through the air. Several of the partygoers are decapitated by the blades at once. Their friends are slow to respond. They are so unaccustomed even to the idea of something going awry in their lives that they cannot mentally process what is happening. They just stand on the deck, clutching their wives and their drinks, and staring dumbly at the wreckage. I snap out of this faster than everyone else on the deck. I look around for someone from the crew, but they are nowhere to be found. I notice a floor door upon the deck, and I pull it open. There is a ladder that goes down to the darkness. A few of those dumb partygoers look at me as if to ask, “Are you crazy?” I avoid their gaze as much as I can, and climb down the ladder without bothering to remove my fine white coat. As I am climbing down the ladder, I notice that it is taking a lot longer than I had anticipated for me to reach the bottom. It is too dark to see anything. I am enveloped in mist that gets a bit hotter and stuffier with every downward step. Eventually, it is almost impossible for me to breathe, and yet I continue into the hellish bowels of this damaged ship with the intent of finding someone who can help us. When I finally reach the bottom I find myself on a narrow passageway with cages on both sides. Inside each cage is a shackled, dead, black man. There is just enough dim light for me to see that they had been burned when a sudden burst of fire had flown through this space toward the stern wheel. I walk down the passageway without looking too closely at the anguished, dead stare on each of the blistered corpses. They had not had enough time to shut their eyes before that fire wind shot through them. That fire was the last thing they saw in life. Now, dead, they seem to be glaring at me with contempt.
I step over a broken hatch door and into a cramped boiler room. There are still fires that have yet to be extinguished. Muscular black men are putting out the flames and trying to cover a large hole on the side. Ocean water is pouring through the hole like when a dam bursts. It is already up to everyone’s knees and is about to spread through the hatch and into the passageway behind me. I find a particularly kind and handsome Caribbean man among the workers. I recognize him from somewhere. He nods at me, and then returns to his work patching up the hole. I stand beside him, watch what he is doing, and do my best to help him.
We patch the hole, and put out the rest of the flames, but the ship is dead in the water. I return to the deck. The partygoers have turned from dumb to irate. They are completely beside themselves. This explosion was not mentioned in the itinerary. Surely, they all say one way or another, those “darkies” down there must have something to do with this. We never should have let them on board. I try to calm them, but they will have nothing to do with reason. When the Caribbean man climbs up the ladder to accompany me, the angry partygoers nearly throw him overboard. I manage to grab him in time, and I push him to the floor door. He climbs down the ladder before they can grab him again.
Days pass, and there is no one coming out here to save us. The partygoers are collapsing on the deck from dehydration and heat exposure. I climb down the ladder to see what is happening down there. The black men in the boiler room are dying also. Their ordeal has been compounded by the lack of breathable air. I hear them gasping in the shadows, as I am looking for the Caribbean man. I finally find him working on a machine. He explains to be that this is going to be a desalination pump. I offer to help, and together we spend several more days without sleep putting this contraption together. When we are done we work together in hauling the pump out of the boiler room, down the passageway, and up the ladder. It takes every last bit of innovation and energy on our parts just to get it up to the deck. All the other men in the boiler room are dead from asphyxiation, and we both are near death’s door ourselves when we finally climb back into the sunlight.
Some of the partygoers have died. The others are lying on the deck floor staring dumbly at the relentless sun. Or they are leaning against the handrails. Those who can view the two of us are staring at my black companion with contempt. Even when near death they still will not trust him. I explain that we are going to install a pump along the side that is going to desalinate the ocean water. Nobody seems to understand us. Instead, they just lift their bone dry index fingers at the Caribbean man and try to murmur: Shame! Shame!