The Coffin, the Ship
by Mel Kassel
from BWR 46.1
At dawn, I look out the porthole and wait for my vampire.
Here’s what will happen: he’ll knock gently on the ship’s hull. I’ll push the circle of glass outward, and he’ll slip inside as a rush of Spanish moss. He’ll reform with his arms around me. I’ll run my fingers over the black pebbles on his skin.
He saves me for last because I told him to—I should be the sip that seals the night, the taste that turns in circles before settling to roost in his mouth.
I’ll tilt my head, tuck my hair behind my right ear ever-so-slowly. He’ll cup my neck in his hand and lower me onto the bed, roll me onto my side.
It will hurt at first, when the tip of his long, thin beak presses and presses into my ear, but these hallways are known to him. The barriers will give way, grooved by so many visits. He won’t numb me like he numbs the others. I had him stop a long time ago.
There will be a sharp, whistling pain when his tongue slides beneath my eardrum, then the skittering invasion as it probes forward, winds into the loops of my cochlea, splits into two strands. He’ll lap at the fluid inside the spiral—flickering licks that set me trembling against him—until the floor starts swooping back and forth and my stomach swoops with it.
I’ll smile into my pillow as the room spins. When he’s finished, I’ll sit up to suck Dramamine tablets off of his outstretched fingers. I’ll be mindful of his claws.
That’s what will happen.
I wait for the knock.
I met my vampire on a dare in a strip of Gainesville woods. We were all looking for our vampires, back then: me, Heather, Kevin, and Raena.
I remember standing at the edge of the dirt road, shining our flashlights into the mess of trees. None of us wanted to be the first to walk between them. Orb-weaver spiders liked to spin their homes at eye-level, and whoever led the group would be clotheslined more than once.
Eventually, Kevin offered to go in front. There was a secret scuffle for the second position. We all thought that Kevin might be, if not our vampire, then the next-best thing, someone who wanted to kiss us. He had put his arm around me once before, while the four of us watched a French horror film in his dorm room and I was jamming my fingers in my ears and blurring my vision because I didn’t want to be made to jump. He gave me a squeeze that pulled my elbow into his ribs and my head in front of his shoulder. Then he let go, before I could get my bearings enough to nestle.
He was playing us off of one another. He feigned distress at an inability to choose, and we felt sorry for him. If he couldn’t pick, it just meant that we were failing to make the best option an obvious one.
Heather won the second spot, shoving Kevin in the small of his back and giggling. I went third because I grabbed her shoulders. Raena went last.
Why had we gone out there? It’s hard to say, now, when the most important memories—the coffin, the burnt earth, my vampire and his lovely, singed feathers—are the ones I hurry to get to. We had all been horror-hounds, eager to sniff at rumors of the occult, of hauntings, of strange sounds and lights in the sky. It would have been one of those rumors that led us to the woods. A video we saw online, or numbers that we read as coordinates from a Ouija board. We investigated a lot of things, especially during the holiday breaks when the rest of our class migrated to their homes like wriggling, brainwashed salmon.
Everyone wants to find their vampire. I won’t pretend I’m not lucky. But there is power, I’m certain, in wanting it without shame. It’s how you get something and how you keep it. People don’t understand this, and I’m no longer willing to feel defensive about it. I’ve imagined countless conversations between me and Heather, me and my mother.
But Lucy, they’d say, wringing their knuckles white, he’s not even human.
And what’s there to say back? You’ll never convince them that they’d want a vampire too, if they knew what real wanting was. It’s easy to get like that, to settle for human things, and then for Florida human things.
My mother’s propensity to settle, whether it was for Frosted Flakes every day or for bikers who rode without helmets, was infectious. I felt it creep further up my legs each night I slept in the pancaked one-story house in Bluetip. So when I moved, even though Gainesville was in the same state, it was breathing room.
Heather was better. Although, she also skirted around her deeper wants like they would bite. She teased me about my books, my oversized necklaces.
I ask myself, out here on the ocean, if I miss them, and I can’t muster a yes. Another item marked off my schedule.
I sit up in bed. My vampire should have arrived by now, I think. But I won’t worry yet. I’m learning to keep a looser leash. I stretch, forcing my body to demonstrate relaxation.
Kevin braved the spider webs and pretended to wipe them on Heather. She shrieked and swatted at him. Raena and I rolled our eyes, above the game as long as we were benched.
I think it was Raena who suggested truth or dare. We hadn’t found whatever we were looking for and the mosquitos had formed a private thundercloud above us. We needed to reignite the sense of the forbidden, lest someone start complaining about the swamp encroaching on their socks.
“Truth or dare?” she asked.
Mostly, we dared. Heather braided her hair with mud. Kevin climbed a tree until we screamed at him to get down. I yodeled as loud as I could. Raena walked barefoot for two minutes.
We each dared Kevin to kiss one of us. It might have seemed selfless, but it was strategy. He had to know the question was coming. Why else would he have chosen Truth, so soon after the third kiss?
“Who was the best kisser?” we asked.
“That’s not fair. I enjoyed kissing all of you,” he said. But we mocked his cowardice until he chose: Raena.
I remember that my whole body felt inflamed, bee-stung. Heather must have seethed. Raena’s attitude, on the other hand, moved from triumph into nervousness. She insisted on continuing the game so that we wouldn’t have to dwell on what had happened. Maybe she was trying to distract us, to preserve the dynamic we had all opted to break. It didn’t work. She even looked different, now that we were seeing her as the best kisser: her sweat was dew, the knots in her curly black hair were druid’s brambles.
On my turn, she gave me my last dare:
Head backwards on the trail we had made until I couldn’t see or hear them.
Stand for a full ten minutes.
Finish the journey out, alone. They would wait for me on the dirt road and pluck me from the tree line once they saw me emerge.
I don’t remember being afraid. I was too embarrassed, perhaps even grateful for the opportunity to get away. While they marched forward, I stepped back. I re-labeled myself as they faded away. I was the one who would be last out of the woods. The wildest one. What needs of mine could Kevin have answered, anyway? He was handsome and witty, but my high school boyfriends had been handsome and witty, too. Didn’t I deserve something different? They’d see me come out of the trees as though I was just on a walk. I’d give them a look like, What? It’s just the forest. I’d be muddied up to my calves, blotched with bug bites, beaming.
I had just started to move toward the road again when I heard my vampire’s song.
If you don’t have a vampire, it’s difficult to explain this kind of hearing. They loose their voices like arrows. The sound snakes through the air so that you can almost see the path it’s traveled, trace its intent. When the voice hits you, it’s as clear and secret as lips moving against your skin, yet you can also appreciate the distance covered.
That night, the song I heard was my yodeling. My voice, from the dare I had answered over an hour ago. But it was modified: it crackled, looped on itself, skipped and chirped. It found my ears—only mine—and crept inside.
And because of the way I heard it, I knew it was not a prank, not anything sinister. I followed it. At the end of its trail, my vampire was waiting.
Most people think that a vampire has to be a bloodsucker, cloaked (or at least clothed), pale, humanoid. These are stale standards.
A vampire relies on your body for food. They will be drawn to you, and you to them, inescapably, because your hunger for each other becomes something anatomical. Sex may enter into the equation, but is not a requirement.
A relationship with a vampire is obsessive, consuming, weaponized on both sides. It’s often dangerous. But one thing that the books and movies tend to get right is that a vampire is loyal. Once he finds his person, he knows that she is different—that she will shape his life, that he will change hers.
Vampires can’t turn other people into vampires. That would be stupid. It defeats the entire point of having a vampire, which is your need for each other.
My vampire has needed me for more than a year. But today, he is late. I can no longer deny it. The porthole window shows empty sky, a dawn turning silver like his eyes. Sunlight doesn’t kill my vampire. But people will, if he’s found.
My anxiety teeters into anger. I worked hard to get us here, and I don’t enjoy catering to the class of people that can afford to stay on the ship, languid and slick with lotion, for weeks at a time. My wrists ache from being bent backwards under serving trays.
I do this for him so that he can feed and not be noticed. The after-effects of his visits—motion sickness, lack of balance, symptoms of something amiss in the inner ear—they’re the risks that already come with your mermaid-themed cabin, salsa lessons, and unlimited salad bar. He sups, they feel sick, they blame the sea.
I walk to the porthole and push it open. Below, the ocean bites feebly at the metal of the ship. I crane my neck to look above the window and only see more windows, eyes upon eyes that look out from the rust-spattered flank.
I sing a playful yodel into the stillness.
Now, I am afraid. He has never been so late, or gone so long without calling for me. I pull my head back into my cabin and conduct a quick sweep. The narrow closet, empty. The bathroom, a cramped and gurgling zoo for travel-sized toiletries, empty otherwise. No one under the bed. And if I’m honest, he’s never been one for hiding out of mischief.
I should be falling back to sleep, his feathers soft beneath my head, his heartbeat thrumming its four-beat pulse against my cheek. Instead, I’m pulling on a pair of jeans and sticking my feet into sandals, because my vampire is missing.
Kevin, Raena, and Heather were screaming my name by the time I found my way back onto the trail. I walked out of the woods as I had planned: grinning, unfazed. Raena was sobbing and hugging me, saying how awful she had been for giving me that dare, asking if I was all right, if I had gotten lost.
“I’m fine,” I told them. “I wanted to check out a noise I heard. I think it was a big toad. Then I got turned around.”
Heather linked my arm though hers as we made our way back to the car. I didn’t tell any of them, not even her, about my vampire. And they couldn’t see him, concealed as he was under my pant leg, wrapped around my calf as a red and wet length of Spanish moss.
Once we were alone in my room, he slithered to the floor and built himself back into the body I had seen in the woods: hummingbird head, glistening red neck, feathers that tapered to black scales at his extremities. He spoke to me in a language that sounded like camera shutters going off inside a barrel of water. I told him that I didn’t understand, but that I was glad he decided to come with me. He had been in real trouble. I could help him.
The first feeding happened then. There hadn’t been time in the woods, but I had caught him inspecting me like any vampire would inspect their chosen mortal, turning my head this way and that, clicking his mouth in anticipation. I knew what he was planning.
I’ll admit that I expected him to drink from my neck. Even I wasn’t too imaginative, at that point, steeped as I was in the literature. I tensed and gasped when his beak entered my ear instead.
But he was gentle; he numbed what hurt, and he stopped drinking when I became so nauseous that I vomited. He tried to speak to me, and I waved him away while I cleaned up, telling him not to worry, that I would be all right.
He looked ruddier, healthier after drinking from me. I had invited him in. He was definitely a vampire.
“You’ll stay, won’t you?” I asked, and he tilted his head. Of course he would.
I didn’t restrict his movements, but I told him about the dangers of being seen. There were times when I was sad to keep him a secret, when I wished that I could share how beautiful he was. But I abided by another trope that smacked of truth: exposing your vampire never ends well.
I’m dreading exposure now, so far offshore. If someone finds him, then they might deal with him themselves rather than summon an authority. I’m not sure what would be worse—my vampire slain by a classic mob, or my vampire vivisected by government-issue cutlery.
I scan the hall for doors cracked open. The plush carpet absorbs my footsteps, so I can safely break into a jog, then a run. This is only one of several floors, several halls. And he can move almost anywhere, up and down walls, through cracks, beneath furniture.
I can’t help but believe that I would know if he was in danger. We’ve been together long enough that we should be tethered psychically. Or is that just more Renfield bullshit? Not for the first time, I wish that my vampire had bothered to learn English, that we might set the record straight on his talents.
“Where are you?” I whisper. The boat groans, unhelpful.
Is he upset with me? I replay yesterday’s feeding in my head, the way I had clung to him, how greedily he had sipped. It had been the left ear, that time. There had been nothing out of the ordinary.
We’ve had fights before. All vampire-human relationships have friction, or they would become boring. But we’ve never walked away from each other.
Could he be working on a coffin again?
The thought slows my feet. He wouldn’t. He knows how important it is that we sleep in the same space, that he not be isolated. He doesn’t even have materials on board.
I shove open the door to a maintenance closet and find a fire-hose tangled within. No Spanish moss—or what looks like a new kind of Spanish moss, really, crimson and glistening, a mess of sniffing tendrils—wrapped around the coils. I slide the door shut again.
A boat is an ironic place to lose someone. They have to be here with you, because there’s nowhere else to go. But there are too many rooms, too many nooks, some of them only accessible to specialists. I won’t be able to snoop while I’m working; the managers keep us running with mathematical precision, enforcing a balance of servers-to-served that brooks no sudden absence.
Perhaps it would be best to assume the worst. Either he’s still feeding, in which case he’s so distracted by the taste of someone else that he has momentarily forgotten me, or, he’s building a second coffin.
Both of these are betrayals. Both of these are unacceptable.
But maybe he’s back at my room, looking for me, his feathers wilting in contrition?
A noise from above me: a thump and a scraping across the upper deck.
I turn and run for the stairs. I steel myself for what I hope is the second-worst fight we’ve ever had.
Our worst fight happened after I caught my vampire feeding on Heather. She was unconscious, numbed, drooping in his arms. I stood in her doorway and watched his throat flutter with each swallow. It was late. I had wanted to copy her lecture notes.
“What are you doing?” I asked him, furious. “You can’t—not with her!”
I tried to pull him backwards, to uproot his beak from her head.
Heather and I had roomed together our freshman year. We marveled at how well we had been matched: she was disdainful of sorority hairstyles, reality television, and the dorm-wide smoking ban; I was disdainful of most things. Kevin had been our only source of contention, and now that he was regularly fucking Raena, we were back to a pleasant stasis. Or, we had been, before I had to reclaim my vampire.
“Get off of her!” I yelled, and that time he listened. I forced myself to watch as he slid his mouth out of her ear, his tongue a neon yellow flash that retreated after it. He placed her on the bed with a tenderness that made me want to kick him.
I grabbed his arm and walked into the hallway. I was so angry that I didn’t even think about hiding him, but he transformed anyway, wrapping his moss-body around my waist, squeezing and loosening. When we were safely shut in my room again, I pushed him down over my legs and stepped out of the loop of him.
“What the fuck was that?” I yelled at the seething mass on the floor.
He reformed, bobbed his head, and mimicked me: “Fuck was that?”
“You’re supposed to…” I couldn’t say what I believed, that we belonged to each other. That vampires might feed off the populace, but never their bride’s friends. That his propensity for breaking the rules was getting on my fucking nerves. We’d had several talks about his mysterious daytrips, his returns to the woods, to the broken coffin. I had thought we were doing better.
“No more of that, okay? Do you understand me? You can feed on whoever you want, but I don’t want to know them. No one else in this building. Okay?” I fixed my eyes on his. He spoke in his own voice, bubbles and clicks. His tone was indecipherable. His eyes were silver puddles, enormous on his face, covered by a silky, translucent mesh. Beautiful. Two cold and netted seas.
“Do you promise?” I asked, already having forgiven him. I put a hand on his cheek. “Do you promise to be mine?”
He was looking out the window, up at the sky. Perhaps hearing me, perhaps not. I took his hand and pulled him toward the bed. I brought my mouth to his neck, kissed his feathers, pushed so that my lips found the rough skin beneath.
“Let me show you,” I said. He wrapped his arms around me, the same way he might for a feeding. I repositioned his hands, demonstrated how to press and pinch and rub. His claws drew bright, clumsy scratches.
I explored him, manically at first, then slowly, running my palms over his chest and sides. I traced the outlines of bones that I didn’t have: a sternum split into three rounded prongs, ribs that darted beneath my fingertips like frightened fish.
I pulled him on top of me, squirmed out of my pants and underwear. My hand moved to his groin, circling. His beak snapped shut close to my ear. The feathers between his legs were shorter and sharper. No protrusions, no entrances. But we made do—I wrapped my legs around him, rocked myself against his thigh as he held me.
The deck of the ship is all squares and shadows in the early light. It can’t be totally abandoned. Crewmembers should be patrolling at all times, to prevent people from leaping overboard or breaking into the more luxurious cabins. I don’t see any watchmen, though.
I hear the scraping again, closer to the bow.
I sidestep piles of rope to walk along the starboard gangway, stepping as soundlessly as I can. I’m still traversing the waist of the ship, a lower plane than the raised deck that tapers to the prow. I can’t yet see the source of the noise.
I have a guess, though. My vampire, my love, is trying to leave me.
Maybe he hates life on the ocean. Maybe he resents being cooped up as what-looks-like-moss for much of the day, a living bracelet around different parts of me. I suppose I could understand. He had more room to roam back on the mainland, more variety in his feedings.
But he has given me no warning, no attempts at discussion. I’ve told him so many times that communication is paramount; that we won’t be able to make it as a couple if we can’t express our desires, our fears, our devotion to one another. Our bond may have been destined, but it still needs tending. I’ve put in the work.
I nearly let out a sob when I climb the staircase to the bow and see him. He’s crouched and squinting next to the new coffin he’s built, the feathers of his face raised into crests, revealing neat rows of smaller, blacker eyes. He’s so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t hear me.
Behind him, sprawled, are two uniformed men. Their necks have puckered holes where his beak went in, then out. Their blood has split into streams that race each other down the planks of the deck, toward the middle, where they pool together again in a stretched red oval.
I stop looking at them. I look at my vampire, and déjà vu hits me so hard that I almost laugh. I’ve been here before, goggle-eyed as he attempts repairs on a coffin the size of a car. I know what this coffin means for us, why my eyes can’t quite follow its many edges, why the air around it swelters and puts the tang of metal in my mouth, why it smells like thick, gaseous loneliness.
I know because I destroyed the first one.
He had been cutting his feedings short, leaving me for longer stretches each night. I’d wake up alone, reaching for him. Did he think I wouldn’t notice? He wasn’t visiting Heather anymore, but this was worse. He didn’t listen to me when I kept confronting him about it.
“I know you’re still going out there,” I called after him one night. He had just fed on me; he couldn’t need more from anyone else. “What are you doing?”
He yodeled back at me in my voice, shrunk himself into the red moss, scampered away.
I didn’t see him the next morning. I borrowed Kevin’s car and returned to the woods. I kept telling myself that this was a natural stage in our relationship. The vampire always fears that he’s going too far—that he’s endangering the human. He thinks that he should distance himself for her own good. Like she’s not a fucking adult capable of weighing risks and making choices.
He’s not cliché, but he is still a vampire. I have to remind myself of this, over and over.
I parked the car on the side of the dirt road and walked along the tree line, trying to pick out the area where we had waded inside so many months ago. All because of one shaky video from someone’s flip-phone that Kevin found online. He showed it to us. We had recognized the dirt road, the highway beyond it that tilted into view for a second or two while the person filming tried to frame a section of sky, to zoom in on something large as it fell.
But like I said, we could have gone out there for any reason. The result would have been the same: my summons, our secret.
I pushed into the forest when I thought I was close enough to our entry point. I ducked beneath the orb-weavers, startled a pair of egrets. The ground became soggier as the sunlight dimmed.
“Where are you,” I said to myself, softly.
I found him by accident, if accidents were still possible for us. I avoided a fire-ant hill, then gave it an even wider berth when I noticed the lines of ants coming home from all directions. And because I strayed to the left, I saw the edge of the coffin glinting through the trees, too even and too black for the woods.
I forced my way into the clearing, parting long grasses and sinking up to my ankles in algae-flecked water. My vampire was kneeling by the coffin, one of his hands transformed into countless fingers of moss that churned and pried at something on the side of the box.
“Hey!” I shouted, and he glanced at me without surprise. He stood, his feathered head looming over mine. His hand retracted and rewove itself.
“Why are you doing this?” I shouted. “Don’t you want to stay?”
The coffin was still in bad shape, I was relieved to see. Panels hung askew or had been ripped away from its surface. The lid wasn’t yet correctly aligned with the rest of it, because a large chunk was missing.
Energized by fear and by my vampire’s silence, I pushed at the lid. It moved easily and toppled to the ground.
“What about me?” I asked, plunging my hands into the coffin’s interior, ripping into the cold and shriveled strands of moss that I found. I tore the dead moss out, gathering larger and larger fistfuls, daring him to stop me. He didn’t. He stood and watched, his beak clattering, his body still.
Eventually, he stepped forward and started to help me. Something had clicked. I had convinced him.
Together, we stripped the inside of the coffin. The tendrils of moss we removed curled into perfect circles as they sunk into the ground, leaving O-shaped burn marks.
The new coffin is a cobbled-together mess of steel. When I can focus on it, I discern engine parts, the base of a large propeller, deflated life preservers pasted onto the lid, which is balanced against the side. He’s molded the structure into the same pointed, hollow shape as the first coffin, the one he landed in.
Inside, I see a thick bed of shifting moss. It flexes lazily upward, swipes at nothing, falls. He must have added to it a bit at a time, snapping off parts of himself that regrew. I’m unfamiliar with this piece of vampire lore. I’m out of my depth. I’m about to be left here, to be nothing more than a caterer on a cruise ship, a grown woman with rashes above her armpits where her server’s jacket chafes. The closest bit of land is a swamp, the closest person I know is the mother I haven’t spoken to since I left for college.
“I did this for us,” I tell him, my voice brittle. “The boat. I wanted you to be happier, and safe. And now you’re leaving.”
A walkie-talkie blares on one of the dead men’s hips. I expect it to announce: he doesn’t need you.
“What will you eat?” I yell. He trills back at me. He lowers his crests, hides his secondary eyes, pins me with his silver ones.
Footsteps on the lower deck. Shouting.
“What’s going on up there?”
I’m tugged at the waist, his arm suddenly there, around me. Pulling me to him. He has one leg inside the coffin, one leg on the wood of the boat. His feathers prick my skin and I smile, throw my arms around his neck, fall into the coffin with him, laughing.
It’s larger inside than the twin mattress I have in my cabin. We lay on our backs, shoulder touching shoulder. The moss twines around us, stretches up and over the edge to pull the lid in place and snap us into total darkness. I can hear the moss sighing; I can feel my vampire moving, and I think, though I’m not entirely sure, that he’s linking himself to it, growing tendrils from his hands and chest and sides that hook into the coffin’s bed.
Muffled noise from outside. Fists on the coffin’s lid. But we’re moving, forward first, then up and up.
Is this what vampires do?
Of course it is. They sleep in coffins, in the cold dark, with their brides, until they’re hungry.
I rest my head on my vampire’s chest, hear the four-beat rhythm of whatever lies inside.
Mel Kassel lives and teaches in Iowa City. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a World Fantasy Award winner, and a lover of strange animals. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, The Toast, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @MelKassel.