THE KOI OF HUNGWA
“…y en diecinueve catorce Pancho Villa derrotó los federales en El Toma de Zacatecas.”
Peoria and Rafael were standing at the other side of the room, reading from one of a dozen spiral bound notebooks piled up on a chair. I looked up at them through hazy, half awake eyes.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“Police reports. Rafael has friends in the Federale,” said Peoria.
She walked over to the bed and handed me a water stained spiral notebook that was folded open. She pointed to a section on the page that had been circled furiously in red.
“There are records here that go back a hundred years.”
I stared blankly at the page. My Spanish had gotten weak since my mother passed away. I tried to make sense of the words in front of me.
(translated from Spanish into English)
February 6th, 1951: John Flowers, 38, from Detroit Michigan, arrives in Zacatecas. He rents a room at Meson de Jobito and is seen drinking at Los Olvidados.
February 12th, 1951: John Flowers meets Rafael Ortiz, 27, grandson of Ricardo Ortiz, 88, one time leader of the Chichimera.
February 16th, 1951:Rafael Ortiz and John Flowers are seen regularly together at Los Olvidados.
March 2nd, 1951: John Flowers and Rafael Ortiz are thrown in jail for breaking into Zacatecas Cathedral after regular church hours. Ortiz gives this statement:
“I only wanted to visit my grandfather. I did not realize how late it was.”
(Rafael Ortiz’s grandfather, Ricardo, who retired from the Chichimera in 1929, works as the groundskeeper of Zacatecas Cathedral. He also curates the cathedral’s collection of antiques.)
March 3rd, 1951: John Flowers and Rafael Ortiz are released from Zacatecas county jail.
March 5th, 1951: Ricardo Ortiz is found dead in his room in the basement of Zacatecas Cathedral. Rafael Ortiz is found badly beaten.
March 6th, 1951: Rafael Ortiz gives authorities this statement from his hospital bed:
“John Flowers had been to Zacatecas Cathedral several times and was fascinated with my grandfather’s collection of antiques. He was particularly fond of a small metal fish, an item that had been passed down through my family. Flowers offered to buy it for 5,000 pesos, but my grandfather refused to sell it. Flowers said he would give me the money if I helped him steal the fish. His plan was to take it back to Detroit with him and donate it to a museum.
Last night we broke into the back of the cathedral using a crowbar. Our plan was to steal the fish. When my grandfather woke up, he tried to stop us. Flowers hit him over the head with the crowbar until he stopped moving. Then he attacked me.”
March 8th, 1951: John Flowers is seen crossing the desert on a stole horse. It is believed he is headed to the town of Saltillo.
When I finished reading, Rafael walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“It is my greatest regret,” he said in broken English. “I was young…stupid. I will never forgive myself.”
John Flowers, where had I seen that name before? I paced back and forth across the room with my eyes. Then it hit me. I reached into my pocket and pulled out me wallet. I took out my mother’s parchment and opened it carefully. At the bottom of the page on the right hand side was a list of names. The second to last name was John Flowers.
“Peoria! Come and look at this,” I said.
I pointed to the list of names on the parchment.
“What is this?” she said. “Where did you get it?”
“It’s this thing I have..My mother gave it to me.”
I hesitated telling her the full story behind how I got it.
“I have seen this before,” said Rafael, “It was once with my grandfather’s fish.”
Peoria turned to me.
“Lewis why have you not told us you have this?” she asked angrily.
“I, I don’t…” I stopped myself, trying to decide what to say. “ I don’t know why I never told you. I don’t know what this means.”
I woke up to the sound of screaming in the distance. I looked over to see Peoria sleeping next to me. I lifted up a corner of the tarp just in time to see the last glimpse of the sun before it sank below the horizon. I gently shook Peoria by the shoulder to wake her up. She sat up slowly, sleepily, trying to remember where she was. When she heard the screaming, she looked at me with terrified eyes.
“You look awful,” she said.
“I don’t feel very good,” I told her. “We need to find the others,”
One by on we climbed down out of the wagon. My leg throbbed. I could feel every heart beat like a thunder bolt through my body. The pain made me nauseous and I feared I would be sick. My leg was so stiff I couldn’t bend it. I was able to stand, but immediately fell over when I attempted to walk. Peoria helped me get back on my feet. I put my arm around her shoulder and we slowly made our way back to Los Olvidados. I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror of a pick-up truck. I’d lost all color in my face. I looked like death it self.
As we neared the center of town the screaming became louder, angrier, like a cloud of drunken aggression. One voice was the loudest, yelling over and over again “Johnston Lewis! Bring me Johnston Lewis!” I immediately recognized the voice to belong to Scotty.
When we reached Zacatecas Cathedral, Peoria leaned me up against the wall and the two of us peered around the corner to see what was happening. Scotty and the rest of the Yuls were in front of Los Olvidados turning over wagons and setting them on fire. They were firing their guns into the air and describing at the top of their lungs the gruesome atrocities they planned to do to us once they found us.
A young boy rode up with a wagon full of lumber. One of the Yuls shot the horse in the head, while the other pulled the boy down and slung him to the ground. They kicked the wagon over and dosed it with tequila and whiskey, before setting it on fire like the rest.
Peoria put her hands to her mouth as tears rolled down her cheeks. I handed her the gun and slumped down against the wall. She sat down next to me and grabbed my hand. My head became heavy. I could barely keep my eyes open.
I woke up to a sharp searing pain in my leg. I tried to sit up but a hand calmly pushed me back down. An old man was standing over me with a knife and a bloody rag.
“Tranquilo,” he said. “Estoy intentando salir la bala de su pierna,”
He handed me a bottle of mescal and continued to work on my leg. I was lying on a small bed in a dark windowless room. Peoria was sitting at a desk in front of me.
“This is Rafael. He found us sleeping against the wall. He helped me carry you inside.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“In the cathedral, down in the basement.”
I’ve been shot in the leg. There’s blood everywhere. Peoria and I are hiding in the back of a wagon under a tarp. She ripped off part of her shirt and used it as a tourniquet.
Early in the day Peoria and I left Gram and Iseri in the cantina and went off to find a guide. Someone came up behind me and grabbed my arms. From out of nowhere appeared Scotty and the rest of the Yuls. Before I could say anything, he knocked me out with the butt of his rifle.
I woke up on a dirty wood floor and looked around. Peoria was standing in the center of the room with the Yuls around her. One of them pushed her over a table while another held her arms. A third Yul came up behind her and started pulling down her pants. The rest of them stood around and watched.
“I’ll cut your dick off and choke you with it, you son of a bitch!” said Peoria.
The Yul smiled.
“Not this time love,” he said.
No one was looking at me. I wiped the blood from my eyes and slowly stood up. I pulled a gun from the holster of the Yul standing in front of me and pushed him out of the way. I ran up to the Yul behind Peoria, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through his skull and into the wall. His lifeless body collapsed to the floor. I grabbed Peoria and pointed the gun at Scotty. My arm was shaking so much I could barely keep it on him.
“We’re leaving,” I said.
As we ran out into the desert, the Yuls were firing at us from the windows. One of them hit me in the leg. Peoria dragged me into a nearby barn. We rested for a minute. I could hear Scotty yelling. We crawled out a window in the back of the barn and hid in a wagon under a tarp.
Peoria gave me a pile of stuff about del Herrero, coloring books, comics, posters, novels etc. They all tell the same story. He grew up in Barcelona, the son of a blacksmith. At seventeen he joined the Spanish Navy. By age twenty six he was made captain.
His ship was destroyed in the Battle of Preveza and he was taken prisoner by the Ottomans. (just like it said in his letter) None of the books mentioned Barbarrossa or a bone knife and only once did I read about a fish medallion that he wore around his neck.
The last book I read was entitled Francisco del Herrero y La Barranca del Fuego and it told the story of del Herrero and the gray pillar in the sky. Like it said in the children’s book in Barcelona, Herrero and his men marched into the desert in search of the origin of the pillar. They walked for three days until they reached the edge of the desert. At the foot of the mountains before them was an enormous bonfire, spilling dark smoke into the sky. From far away this smoke looked like a gray pillar. On both sides of the fire stood hundreds of Chichimeca warriors dressed for battle. They descended upon Francisco del Herrero and his men like a pack of wolves.
Captain Gram is in a good mood, playing his favorite Four Tops and Temptations records on the F. Scott’s sound system. He and Peoria have been drinking bourbon and showing me dance moves. Peoria was teaching me how to do the pretzel until Gram cut in and took her away. Damn. I ended up watching Iseri and Tom play cards in the mess hall.
The Captain is passed out at his desk. A letter fell from his hand to the floor.
I don’t know where to begin, because I’ve been spent the last week talking to you in my head. I’ve been thinking about us, the history of our relationship, and our conversation last night. The thought of losing you is so horrible it’s almost unbearable. I think I’ve told you before that I can’t imagine living without you, but I also can’t imagine living a life like this. You’ve been so patient with me, and regardless of what I may say from time to time; I would never change anything about you. I am sorry that I left without saying goodbye. I’ll miss waking up to you and the way you look at me. I’ll miss our dancing and going fishing in the afternoon. You are the love of my life, I am sure of this now.
I am sorry,
Gram keeps a stack of these letters in the front pocket of his Grandfather’s old coat. When he thinks no one is around, he pulls them out and reads them over and over.
I picked up the letter and put it away so Peoria wouldn’t see it.
We reached Mexico two days ago, entering through the Rio Panuco, outside Madero. We journeyed up the river to the town of San Luis Potosi. From here the water was too shallow so we had to leave Tom with the F. Scott. Peoria, Iseri, Gram and I walked into to town and caught a chicken bus to Zacatecas.
The ride was long and hot. We arrived this morning. Zacatecas is an old silver mining town on the edge of the dessert. The people are friendly, but quiet. They seem frightened of us. They won’t look us in the eyes. You get the feeling something awful happened here.
In the center of town was the Zacatecas Cathedral, with a collapsed roof. Across the street was a bar called Los Olvidados. We were hungry so we decided to see if they were serving lunch.
“What the hell is Alexander Grealish doing here?” said Peoria. “And what are those idiot cowboys doing with him? And what was that shit about Naomi?”
“Forget it darlin’…Did you find anything about this del Herrero guy?” said Captain Gram.
“They wouldn’t let me into the library because I don’t have a Soviet stamp on my passport. However I did buy this off a vendor.”
She dropped a brightly colored children’s book on the table entitled “Las Aventuras Fantásticas de Francisco del Herrero.”
“These books are everywhere,” she said. “He’s some kind of local hero here.”
I started looking through the book. It depicted del Herrero as this heroic conquistador, traveling the world in search of adventure.
This is what I read:
¡Durante la época dorada de España, Francisco del Herrero era nuestro explorador más grande!
(During the Golden Age of Spain, Francisco del Herrero was our greatest explorer!)
Él navegó de su hogar en Barcelona al nuevo mundo en busca de aventura.
(He sailed from his home in Barcelona to the New World in search of adventure.)
Mientras que cruzaba el Atlántico, su nave fue cogida en una tormenta en el mar, pero Francisco del Herrero era sin miedo.
(While crossing the Atlantic, his ship was caught in a storm at sea, but Francisco del Herrero was unafraid.)
Él braved ondas el tamaño de montañas y vino a un bosque aterrorizado en el medio del océano. Era en esta selva prehistórica que él luchó los cangrejos del albino del monstruo que amenazaron destruir su nave.
(He braved waves the size of mountains and came to a petrified forest in the middle of the ocean. It was in this prehistoric jungle that he battled the monster albino crabs that threatened to destroy his ship.)
De nuestro héroe navegó a México, en donde él luchó en la guerra de Chichimeca. Él derrotó al salvaje Chichimeca y fundó la ciudad de Zacatecas. Él gobernó Zacatecas por treinta años y fue amado bien por su gente.
(From there our hero sailed to Mexico, where he fought in the Chichimeca War. He defeated the savage Chichimeca and founded the town of Zacatecas. He ruled Zacatecas for thirty years and was well loved by his people.)
Pero la aventura nunca era lejana. Un día Francisco del Herrero consideró un gran pilar gris en el cielo, elevándose sobre la ciudad.
(But adventure was never far away. One day Francisco del Herrero saw a great gray pillar in the sky, towering over the town.)
“Esto es una muestra de dios!” él dijo. “Encontraré el origen de este gran pilar, porque me llevará seguramente a una nueva y mayor aventura!”
(“This is a sign from God!” he said. “I shall find the origin of this great Pillar, for surely it will lead me to a new and greater adventure!”)
Él sacó el polvo apagado de su armadura y afiló su espada. En el amanecer la mañana siguiente, él y sus hombres dejaron Zacatecas y marcharon al norte en el desierto, pero nunca fueron oídos de otra vez…
(He dusted off his armor and sharpened his sword. At dawn the next morning, he and his men left Zacatecas and marched north into the desert, but they were never heard from again…)
I handed the book to Gram.
“A petrified forest in the middle of the ocean? Giant albino crabs? A gray pillar from God? Captain have you ever heard of anything like this?” I said.
He thumbed through the book, pausing at the page with the giant crabs.
“I don’t know what the hell this damn book is talking about. But I do know that this is our guy. Peoria get me everything you can find with Herrero’s name on it and meet me back at the F. Scott. We leave tonight.”
“Where are we going Captain?” I asked.
“We’re going to Mexico bud.”
October 18th (Venice)
Saint Mark’s Basilica is separated into five domes, each with its own set of archives, dating back as early as 423 A.D. Peoria has spent the past five days going from dome to dome researching the name Francisco del Herrero. When she got back to the sub tonight, Gram was sitting at his desk with his Elvis mug reading the paper.
“Hey darlin,” he said when she walked in.
“Hazte cojer!” she said as she stormed by him.
The Captain looked at me with puzzled eyes.
“What’s got into her?”
“I think she’s mad that you didn’t help her in the archives. She’s spent the past five days all by herself wandering the Basilica, and she hasn’t found anything.”
“Oh,” said Gram. “Alright, go find Tom and tell him we leave for Barcelona.”
“When?” I asked.
October 19th (Barcelona)
“Arthur! How are you?”
The Captain and I were sitting at a table in the middle of La Rambla drinking sangria when a tall, slim, bearded man in an expensive looking suit approached us. He sounded like he was from North London. His hair was slicked back and curled at the bottom. He looked like an asshole.
“Alex. Good to see you,” said Gram unenthusiastically. “Murikai told me he sent you. How did you find me?”
“I tracked your mobile,” said the man.
He placed a smooth black plastic rectangle the size of a cigar box on the table next to Gram’s clunky green military mobile that had been dropped a hundred times. He pulled up a chair and sat down.
He reached across the table and plucked a shrimp off a plate of paella that was sitting in front of the Captain.
“Arthur, I don’t see much of you lately. Where have you been?”
“Around. We don’t go to the same places.”
“Not anymore we don’t, no.”
“We never did Alex. What do you want?”
“You aren’t going to thank me for recommending you to Murikai?”
The man adjusted himself. He crossed his legs and leaned his elbow on the table.
“Arthur, I want you to know that I’m here if you need me. Understand that I gave you this little job and I can take it back just as easily.”
He turned around and pointed with his thumb across the street. Scotty and the rest of the Yul Brynners were walking towards us, picking food off people’s plates and smashing wine glasses as they made their way to our table. One of them kicked over a bin, spilling rubbish all over the street. I jumped out of my chair but the Captain grabbed my shoulder and pushed me back down. They pulled over chairs and sat down around us.
“I brought some associates from London. I believe you’ve met Scotty and the boys, correct?”
Scotty smiled and waved to the Captain.
“Yeah, I know him,” said Gram. “He’s a crap pool player.”
“I’ll be taking my whiskey back,” said Scotty.
“It’s bourbon,” said the Captain. “And you ain’t getting shit back.”
Peoria walked up with Iseri. She froze when she saw the Yuls. One of them stood up and pointed at her.
“You killed me best mate girlie, split his skull in half…. I’m gonna slice you open and fuck your insides.”
Iseri cracked his knuckles and grunted.
“I’d like to see you try you bald twat,” said Peoria.
Alex smiled. He turned to the Captain and stared at him with fierce eyes.
“Once you’ve found this Koi fish for Murikai, you be sure to come talk to me first. If you don’t, we are going to have a problem. Do I make myself clear?”
He stood up and his tone became pleasant.
“And I shall be sure to give Naomi your regards tonight at dinner.”
He pushed his chair back into the table and turned to leave. The Yuls followed him, each one snarling at Peoria. They crossed the street and were gone.
“Who was that Captain?” I asked him.
Gram leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath.
“Well…If I’m Motown, then he’s Stax Records.”
The United States Navy built the F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1883 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Originally named the Norfolk, it was one of two submarines designed by Benjamin Strickland of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Strickland’s other submarine, named the Suffolk, was sunk during the Spanish American War. In 1910 the Norfolk returned to New York and was outfitted with a diesel engine, making her faster and safer. However in 1917 she was sunk off the coast of England by a German U-boat.
During World War II, the British government drudged up the Norfolk and repaired her. They strengthened the hull and fortified the bow giving her the ability to ram other ships. They mounted machine guns on the deck and renamed her the F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1984 Captain Gram bought the F. Scott for scrap during the Great Recession of the Thatcher administration. (his favorite toast is ‘Cheers Maggie!’) For six months Tom worked as a tech contractor for the British Military. During that time he managed to stockpile an impressive collection of decommissioned hardware, which he used to build a massive computer system that he later installed in the sub. (the whole thing looks ridiculous, but it works)
The F. Scott is eighty-six feet long from bow to stern with a beam of approximately thirty-two feet. Both the galley and the mess hall are located at the starboard bow, while the Captain’s quarters are at the stern. One of my jobs on board is to switch out the jugs attached to the bottom the Mechanical Gills and drag them up to the mess hall once they are full of drinkable water. We keep the cupboard in the galley full of dried noodles, corn beef hash and preserves. There is a big bag of rice under the stove, next to a jar full of drippings. Tom loves to fish so the fridge is always stocked with trout, grouper or mahi mahi, wrapped in newspaper. The Captain keeps a stash of bacon in the freezer, which is off limits.
Below the mess hall there are five cabins and a bathroom with a pressure operated toilet. We keep a plastic bucket on board for when the toilet doesn’t work, which is often. The engine room is in the back along with the Mechanical Gills, which supply breathable air to a dozen auxiliary tanks.
Midship is the control room where we spend most of our time. Below that is the hold, which we use mainly for storage. Attached to the control room is the library where Gram keeps his massive collection of books. He’s been collecting them for most of his life beginning with a copy of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, which he stole from a nursing home when he was nine.
By the time Gram purchased the F. Scott, she had been stripped of any guns or furniture. The seats in the control room were all salvaged. There is a row of Boeing 747 first class chairs in the back that we got from British Airways. Tom says they originally came from the Concord, and are the actual seats where Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley met and hatched the American’t album. (I think he’s full of shit, but you can never tell with Tom.) The rest of the chairs vary in shades of leather. Some are bolted to the floor, some aren’t. I make sure to rub them once a week with oil so that they don’t crack from the heat. Gram keeps a record player with all his records in the library. He keeps a smaller player in his cabin. Tom built a sound system enabling the Captain to play his records throughout the entire sub. (unfortunately) His favorite music is soul and R&B, particularly anything put out by Motown.
Our first destination after we leave Turkey is Venice.
I’m so bored. There is nothing to do in the room. Iseri doesn’t say much and there’s no booze. All I can do is stare out the window and smoke cigarettes. I can’t stop thinking about that duplicate the storekeeper had of my mother’s parchment. What’s the connection? After she gave it to me, I never looked at it. It just reminds me of that awful night.
Gram received a message from Tom.
Good morning Captain,
We’ve passed Crete and are on our way to Turkey. Shouldn’t be more than another day. Send me your exact coordinates and we will come get you.
We ran out of food and cigarettes so Gram sent the Innkeeper’s son to the store. When the boy came back he stared at us nervously.
The Captain woke me up in the middle of the night.
“There is a lot of movement downstairs,” he said. “We need to leave.”
He cocked his pistol and opened the door. We ran down the hall, to the stairwell and onto the roof. I peered over the edge and saw army trucks parked outside the inn. We jumped from roof to roof until we got to the end of the street. Iseri broke a window and one by one we climbed in. We found a stairwell that took us to the ground floor. I could see the river from across the plaza, some fifty meters away. Gram tried calling Tom but he didn’t answer. He left a message on his voicemail telling him where we were.
The sun was up and I went to light a cigarette but Iseri stopped me before I could. He pointed to Gram who was looking out the window. Three soldiers were walking towards us. When the first one walked in the door, Gram put the pistol to his head. The two soldiers behind him saw this and opened fire. Gram fired three shots as we burst out the front door.
We crossed the plaza under a hail of gunfire and hid behind a maintenance shed on the loading dock. Gram tried calling Tom again. This time he answered.
“Hey man, how close are you? We are in a bit of a situation here.”
“Not far Captain. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
The soldiers were making their way across the plaza towards us. When they were twenty meters away Gram fired the pistol to hold them back. He turned to me and smiled.
“Oh, we’re in the shit now bud.”
After ten minutes of silence, the soldiers began to creep towards us again, weapons drawn, fanning out around the maintenance shed.
There was no escape. We had them on all sides. Gram fired two more shots. I sarcastically asked Iseri if I it was ok for me to smoke a cigarette.
Gram received a message on his phone from Tom.
The F. Scott surfaced at the end of the concrete loading dock. The hatch opened and Tom waved us over. We ran down the dock to the sub and Tom helped us aboard. Gram got off two more shots before he closed the hatch. You could hear bullets ricochet off the shell of the F. Scott as we began to dive.
I carefully folded up the letter from del Herrero and continued to look through the papers we took from the storekeeper. I found a hand drawn map tracing Zheng He’s route on his final voyage. His ships sailed past India, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the West Coast of Africa, to a small, unnamed landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There were notes written in Mandarin so I attempted to use the Captain’s mobile to translate them. However the calligraphy was too bizarre for the phone to read fully. Instead I was only able to translate a few words:
Eyes of the Sea
I remembered seeing the term Eyes of the Sea when I was researching the Koi of Hungwa at the British Museum. Emperor Zhu Di had a vision in his sleep where the Sea came to him and said:
“Take my eyes and build for me a fish that will control the tides of the ocean, the wind that blows the sails and the waves that break upon the shore. Do this and you alone shall be my master and I will do your bidding.”
The Eyes were described as being:
“each the size of a walnut, smooth as silk and dark as the bottom of the ocean.”
Further along in my notes I wrote:
“The Koi of Hungwa was presented to the court. The two dark stones were secured in place as the eyes. The Sea kept its promise. Any command the Emperor whispered to the Koi came to be. Enemy ships were destroyed by waves the size of mountains, while no ship from the Empire encountered another storm at sea. Zhu Di crushed his opponents effortlessly and for 5 years he was Emperor of the World.”
There were also notes at the bottom of the map that I attempted to translate. This is what I came up with:
Center of the World
The last thing I found in the storekeeper’s papers made my blood run cold. It was a hand-traced duplicate of the parchment my mother gave me the night she was murdered. She told me it was very important and that I should never show it to anyone. A man was coming for it but I mustn’t let him have it. I asked her who this man was and she said he went by the name of Edward Spines.
I took out the parchment and compared it to the duplicate. They both had the drawing of a fish on one side, but the back of the original was covered in notes in a dozen different languages. The back of the duplicate was blank. My heart was pounding.
Gram came out of the bathroom.
“You look like a deer in headlights,” he said.
“Here,” I said as I handed him Zheng He’s map and the letter
from del Herrero. I didn’t mention anything about the duplicate