Reason herded Martin’s group into the crew mess, a narrow cabin with a long aluminum table. Benches lined each side of the table, which was covered with stains of all colors and crawling with cockroaches. The shit-colored insects were fearless, running up to each bowl of cornmeal mush placed in front of the damned as if they were puppies eager for scraps from their masters. Through his years of privation as a monk with the Penitents of Saint Francis, Martin learned to ignore crawling visitors, brushing away the submariner roaches with his hand. New crew refused to eat the gruel. Eventually, hunger forced them to dip their unwashed spoons into their food, which varied in consistency from watery chunks covered with an oily sheen to thin papier-mâché. Experienced crew valued the insects as protein, and they swallowed the unlucky bugs who slipped into the gruel and drowned. Some were eaten before their legs stopped wriggling.
Martin savored his meals, remembering the days in the hot sun of the eastern reaches of Pacific West when a drink of water was all he could expect for days on end. He relished chewing on a piece of gristle or a sliver of carrot. On some days, moldy crusts of bread appeared, which the damned devoured in seconds. The scraps came from the bosses’ mess, or the captain’s cabin. As he sized up his shipmates, he noted that none were starving, though none were thriving. The cook–an unseen psychopath–was adding nutritional supplements to the gruel, possibly antibiotics as well. Ranchers once did such things to cattle and sheep. Why not do the same thing to the damned?
Bosses allowed only snippets of conversation before they shoved a club into someone’s back. Martin acquainted himself with a bunkmate, the one with the sharp toenails, who went by the name “Osco.” He also had a tulip brand on his forehead. They whispered to each other at meals. Martin always started the conversations.
“How long for what?” Osco picked at a roach carapace between his teeth.
“That.” Martin pointed at the brand.
“Seven years.” Osco slurped at his spoon, a drip of sweat falling into the bowl.
Osco scratched the gray stubble on his head. Enough dirt was packed under his fingernails to grow a small vegetable garden. “Does it matter?”
“Just making conversation.”
“You’re a strange one, Scribb.” Osco stared at Martin with black eyes. “You’re talkative for a dissed man. You could lose your tongue for talking too much.”
Martin shrugged and swallowed a bite of gruel.
“I killed 38 people,” Osco said. “One by one, with a knife. A serrated knife.”
Martin and three or four others paused their eating. “Impressive,” said a young man with a missing ear.
“And I ate them,” Osco added.
“A gourmand, eh?” The man with the missing ear wiped his bowl with a finger to capture the last lumps.
Martin forced back a gag. Others chuckled, careful not to draw attention.
Osco pointed his spoon at Martin. “What about you?” He already knew the answer; Martin had told him.
“I killed millions.”
What do you think?