“EMPTY SPACE” by JAMES HOLLOWAY

Baron Samedi’s big black arse shines bright like obsidian on the deck of the Bay Marie.

I can see a lot from up here at the top of the masthead, drunk and bleary eyed, enjoying the breeze and the scent of the smoke rolling in from the city. Ha Long Bay. Two thousand lime stone islands jutting out from the water like a crocodile’s tail and the night sky is perfectly empty of cloud, more stars than I’ve ever seen back home.

People are yelling at me from the deck. They’re telling me either to jump or to climb back down. A six-foot pale Irishman is making it clear he wants to climb up next, he’s got a beer in his hand and he’s beating his chest like Popeye. I don’t think this rope ladder will support him.

Down below, the Baron’s oiled up rear end twinkles in the moonlight, a beacon in the darkness, then he lifts himself up and dives head first into the water. He’s followed by a Midas-touched teen in a red swimsuit; bleached blonde cornrows cascading down her back. For a man so large he’s oddly graceful.

No one knows who the Baron really is. No one knows his real name. In fact, most of us have never even heard him speak, but at three hundred pounds and six foot five he towers above the locals and commands a certain mythic respect wherever he goes – though he never goes far, from what I understand.

He lives alone at the hostel in a private room on the top floor. No one knows how long he’s been there, because he’s been there longer than any of the current staff. No one knows where he came from either. One guy told me he used to be an accountant in Arkansas. Another guy said he’d seen him hustling drunkards in Vegas. Someone else said he was a former Congolese child soldier on the run. I don’t know if any of that is true, all I know is what everybody tells me: you haven’t partied in Hanoi if you haven’t partied with the Baron.

“Jump you goose!” an Irish voice sails up from below me.

The crowd are getting anxious but there’s no way I’ll clear the deck, I think, so I begin to climb down. My feet are still dangling in the air when the Irishman leaps over me and rushes drunkenly to the top. I take myself to starboard side where Mohammad is waiting with an unopened can of beer in his hand. People of all nationalities are flinging themselves off the side of the boat.

“Minxes man. Minxes. Everywhere. Far as the eye can see,” he says to me, grinning like a cracked watermelon. As with the Baron, I met Mohammad at the hostel. He’s a Canadian-Pakistani with skin light enough to pass for white, and a face full of incongruous orange freckles too. So far on the cruise I’ve met and counted seven Germans, seven Brits, five Dutch, four Israelis, three Argentinians, two Americans, one Irishman, one Canadian.

“I’m in my element, man,” he says to me, “was just playing flip cup down there, the minxes here man, a little fat, but you know,” he shakes his hand so-so, shrugs.

“What song is this?” I ask him. It’s the fifth time I’ve heard this song today.

“You don’t know?”

“No,” I say. I don’t.

“Miley Cyrus man. That chick’s hot as a motherfucker!”

“What’s the name though?”

“The name? Don’t know.”

I stare out at the other travellers thrashing about playfully in the water. It’s dark but the water is inviting, a murky emerald green. I imagine the pollution hiding beneath it. One of the Germans, laughing, launches a beer can off the side of the boat and into the hands of his friend bobbing in the water. Everybody cheers. Mindlessly, I clap too. Then Mohammad and I go over to the banana lounges and sit down. Mohammad stares at me, grinning like a goofball.

“Man, thank you,” he begins say, out of nowhere.

“What for?”

“For not judging me man. People never believe me when I say I’m Pakistani. I think it’s the freckles.”

I don’t know what to say to this, so I just sip on my beer.

“That’s what I like about this place man, you can just you know, be whoever you want. No one knows who you are. I got so sick of feeding those horses man, back in Canada, I just needed a break. But it’s… it’s so beautiful here, and we’re young. This is what life is meant to be.”

The sincerity irks me, but I mumble a ‘no worries’ and go back to drinking my beer. I doubt he’s heard me anyway, his eyes are closed, his arms are stretched behind his back, his goofball smile still slapped across his freckled face.

I decide to get up and go downstairs to the bar to get another beer, but one of the Vietnamese crewmembers tells me in broken English they’re all out. He looks unhappy and stern and rugged, his years of toiling in the hot sun carved in wrinkles across his forehead. I wonder how old he is. Honestly, he could be anywhere between forty and seventy. I think about what this place must have looked like before all the tourists, I wonder if he remembers it.

I don’t think to ask him though.

Instead, as I’m coming back up the stairs I hear a girl screaming. She’s pulling herself back up the ladder of the ship and flops herself belly down onto the deck, panting, screaming feebly, barely able to support her own weight. She’s saying something about Baron Samedi, she’s pointing out to the water. The Irishman from before has joined the girl and she’s saying something to him, something about how she and the Baron had been swimming together in the water until Samedi began to drift away. He’s really drunk she’s saying.

Mohammad and I watch from the top deck. Far out in the blackness we think we spot the glint and sparkle of the Baron’s oiled head, but we can’t be sure. We hadn’t noticed it during the day but the pull of the water is strong and we see what we think is him floating progressively farther and farther from the boat. We think we can hear a low roar, rumbling out from the black like thunder. We think it’s the Baron but the yelps are quiet and they’re muffled and they sound far away.

The girl now is screaming at the Vietnamese crewmembers to do something, but they’re yelling back at her, their arms flying in all sorts of directions. I see the man from the bar down there too. We can still hear the Baron’s voice in bursts, but they’re growing less frequent and more distant. Mohammad lets out a long sustained whistle, like a missile sailing through the sky. It’s a whistle that goes for what feels like forever.

“I’m not looking forward to the news tomorrow,” he says eventually, mock-throwing his empty beer can over the edge of the boat as though it were a football.

I’m taken aback by his nonchalance but then I realise just how calm I am myself and I’m taken aback by that too. I have no idea who this guy is. Somebody turns off the music and a crowd starts to gather around us on the edge of the boat. We don’t know who’s in charge. None of us know what to do. The girl with the bleached blonde hair is still screaming at the crewmembers but they wont budge, they just keep yelling back. It’s difficult to watch.

Someone turns the music back on. I see one of the Argentinians rush for the rope ladder but he gets halfway up and it snaps and he falls back down and lands on his tailbone. He lets out a long groan but he’s too drunk to really feel the pain, so he gets back up almost immediately and runs over to the back of the boat where a group of girls are dancing. A crowd of us still linger by the edge, staring out to the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of that mysterious man.

One of the Israeli’s asks us if we know Baron Samedi’s real name. None of us do.

Eventually the girl and the Irishman and the crew give up their attempts at communication. The crew go back inside the boat, and the crying girl collapses onto the deck with the Irishman’s arm around her, he’s nestling his face against hers. As more people start to realise the bar is out of booze the party begins to peter out. People are returning to their cabins and a quiet descends upon the ship.

The others in our little group retire inside the boat too, so it’s just Mohammad and I standing there in silence watching the Irishman trying to lead the crying girl inside the boat to his cabin. Mohammad speaks up and asks if we should do something, anything.

It’s the first time either of us have even bothered to ask that question and there’s a long pause. The girl and the Irishman disappear.

“What could we do? We’re both drunk,” I say eventually. “We can’t swim like this. We’d drown too.”

I know I’m right, but I don’t feel right. I notice a half empty beer can standing upright on the ground; I raise it to my mouth.

“Plus he’s too far away, now.” The beer has gone warm. I crush the can slightly in my hand.

“If only we had a net… or a giant fishing rod,” Mohammad says with a laugh.

I close my eyes and imagine Baron Samedi harpooned and beached upon the deck, myself with a shucking knife scraping the barnacles off the Baron’s back.

We haven’t heard his voice in a long time.

Giving into my fatigue I move over and sit back down on a banana lounge. I stretch my arms backwards and my legs forwards and prop myself up like that, feeling the slightest of breezes on my sunburnt face. Tomorrow morning we have scheduled a short tour of one of the caves, then we head back into the port and onto a bus and back to Hanoi. Mohammad joins me on the lounge; both of us quiet, peering out over the railing to the feint shadows of the rock formations jutting out of the water like jagged teeth. Ha Long Bay.

“This is the life man. This is the life,” Mohammad says again. It is beautiful, admittedly.

I stare silently at Mohammad. I stare out to the water where the Baron’s body is presumably still bobbing, floating. Alive? I don’t know. I stare straight up and analyse the night sky. I don’t recognise any of the stars, they’re not the same as the ones back home. I feel so far away. I close my eyes and I think: there’s nothing between me and those stars but empty space.