Read the first two chapters here.
The man with the yellow feather, his daughter and her doll surveyed the sea from the bridge and assessed what they needed to do. The captain’s daughter had asked if she could bring her doll with her — it was a limp boy-doll with vacant black eyes and rosy cheeks — and the captain had agreed, thinking the doll, which was inanimate, might be a good sounding board.
“Who are all these people around us?” the captain asked.
“That’s the staff, Dad. They help steer the ship. That’s the chief engineer, and that’s staff captain, and that the—”
“Okay, okay,” the captain said, his brain already hurting from all the complicated terminology, “that’s all fine. But can I get rid of them?” The captain felt uneasy around people who he had not hired himself, and to make matters worse, many of the staffers on the bridge had mustaches, and the captain felt uneasy around mustaches.
The captain’s daughter shrugged. She did not think firing the entire navigational staff was a good idea, but then again, she did not think, as the captain’s main advisor, that it was her place to advise him.
The captain pictured himself telling all these people that they were dismissed, or fired. He had a wonderful vision of himself standing straight in front of them and saying, “You’re all relieved of your duties! You have one minute to vacate the bridge!” In his vision he was very tall and strong, and the staff was very meek and intimidated.
But the idea of actually firing anyone gave him a stomachache, so he asked his daughter to do it.
“Sure, Dad,” she said, and she dismissed the staff captain, the chief engineer, and the quartermaster, on and on — in short, everyone on the ship who knew how to operate the ship.
When they were gone, the bridge was empty and the captain felt much better. Nothing made him feel worse than being around a bunch of people who knew what they were doing. For a few minutes, the captain and his daughter and her doll sat on the bridge in silence. Each of them independently wished they were no longer on the bridge — that they could leave and perhaps go to a party.
The man with the yellow feather took hold of the intercom. “I’m gonna make an announcement,” he told his daughter.
“Sounds good, Dad,” she said.
“We will take you on a voyage you will never forget!” he said into the intercom.
That was a good start, he thought, and his daughter, and many of the passengers, agreed.
“So where should we go?” the daughter asked her father.
The man with the feather brightened. “I want to go somewhere really tremendous,” he said. “Somewhere that’s better than anywhere we’ve been before, but also like the past, and also yellow.”
The captain, his daughter, and her doll stood for a while on the bridge, thinking of where someplace like that might be.
Night came on, and no thoughts had come to any one of them. For a moment, the doll’s vacant eyes seemed to flicker briefly, but it was simply a trick of the light. With no ideas animating their minds, they all went to bed.
For as long as he could remember, the man with the yellow feather had trouble sleeping. His head was full of arguments and recriminations, and in the dark he turned in his bed like a restless kitten.
In the past he had gotten by on a few hours’ sleep each night. When he was chosen to steer the ship, he held out the vague hope that his new quarters and new position might bring with them better rest, but this was not to be. The first night in bed, he couldn’t sleep at all.
The captain was lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling as he usually did, waiting for sleep but instead fighting a thousand battles in his mind against his former teachers who had not thought him brilliant, all the women who did not swoon when he pushed his genitals at them in elevators and on streets, and all the passengers on the boat who had not voted to make him captain.
Then came the spider. It was simply there, on the ceiling, upside down, as if it had been there all along, somehow defying gravity-defying the sanctity and cleanliness of his stateroom. It walked determinedly across the ceiling and then stopped directly over his bed. Directly over his face! The captain muffled a scream. Then, slowly, so as not to invite the possibility of the spider noticing him and descending upon him, the captain inched his way off the bed and, with a thump much too loud for his subterfuge, onto the floor and into the corner.
He looked up. No! The spider had followed him on the ceiling, as if mirroring his movements. The captain let out a whimper. The captain was afraid often, hourly in fact, of everything from germs to women to jai alai, but he was certain he’d never been so afraid as when he looked up and saw that spider on the ceiling over him.
The captain knew he could not get back into that bed. Perhaps not ever. He also knew that he was not safe anywhere in the room. But then he had an idea. From his vantage point he could see that the bed was higher than the average bed, and had quite a bit of clearance underneath the mattress. If he could hustle from the corner of the room, and slither under the bed, he could stay there, perhaps even sleep there, knowing that the spider could not see him there — could not get at him.
And so the captain moved in a serpentine way from his corner of the room to the space under the bed, feeling sure at any moment the spider would descend upon him, would touch him with his tiny serrated limbs… But then the captain made it. When he arrived in the claustrophobic darkness under the bed, he felt at home. He was safe there, unseen there, and knew instantly that this is where he would sleep that night and all nights thereafter.
“Psst,” said a voice. The captain looked left and right, worrying briefly that the spider who was tormenting him from above was the kind of spider who could talk.
“Psst,” the voice said again. Now the captain located its source. It was coming from the vent on the wall next to the bed. He inched closer to it.
“Yes?” he said into the vent.
“Captain,” the voice said, distant but insistent. “I have much to tell you. First, I must congratulate you on eluding and outsmarting that terrifying arachnid. Spiders, as a man of your intellect no doubt knows, are the world’s most dangerous carriers of germs, and also AIDS.”
The captain did not know this about the germs and the AIDS, but he did not let the voice in the vent know he did not know these things. He liked the sound of that word, “intellect,” being applied to him.
“This ship has long had a problem with spiders, as you of course are aware,” the voice in the vent said. “We are practically infested with them. It’s a big problem, a disgrace really, and could lead to the destruction of the ship and maybe the world.”
The captain had never seen a spider on this ship, and had never heard anyone speak of a spider on this ship — which is why the sight of the one on his ceiling had given him such terror. But now that the voice in the vent mentioned it, the captain was certain that he had in fact heard about the spider problem, that it was a big problem, a disgrace really, was, in fact, an infestation that threatened the ship and the world.
“I, too, have made the rational choice to sleep under the bed,” the voice said. “It keeps me safe from the AIDS spiders, and also people with brown skin.”
The captain felt a great smile overtake his face. This voice coming from the vent, more than anyone he’d ever met — even his hot daughter — understood him. The captain, too, was terrified of people with brown skin, but had never thought that simply hiding under his bed would be the solution. But it was!
And so, because the captain was awake, and had nothing else to do, the captain listened closely over the next few hours, as the voice in the vent said a great many fascinating things. He knew so many things that the captain had suspected but had never felt the courage to say. He advanced a quite rational theory that the sea was blue because it was made of melted blueberry popsicles. He explained that certain sandwiches were not good. He explained that Episcopalians were, in fact, Satanists, and that the enemies of the ship, an army of pirates who plagued the seas, were in fact friends. He lucidly explained that certain people on the ship — in particular, those who worked in the engine room — were plotting against the captain. And he said that the ship would be better if certain people, who looked a certain way and were from certain places and who were usually brown, were thrown overboard.
The captain listened, rapt, and felt that at long last someone was expressing his innermost thoughts. Like the voice in the vent, the captain felt isolated and lived in mortal fear of most things. Like the voice in the vent, the captain loathed most people and suspected everyone around him was telling jokes about him which he did not understand. Like the voice in the vent, the captain was sure that under every seeming simple truth there was a sinister lie. Like the voice in the vent, the captain was angry about things he couldn’t express. He was angry and bewildered by so many things: sushi, dictionaries, ranch houses, animals, children, fish, jai alai, and women not wearing clothes that weren’t bathing suits. The voice in the vent was angry and bewildered by all these things, too, and had very brilliant theories about all these things, how they were connected in a coordinated way meant to scare people like the captain and the voice in the vent.
Everything in the world makes more sense, the captain realized with a shudder, when you realize that everyone is out to get you.