A rope ladder unrolled along the Nisshin Maru’s towering hull. I maneuvered the Zodiac along side the ship and squeezed the throttle, fending off the slashing waves. It was still dark out but the Nisshin Maru was well lit and spotlights illuminated the black hull and the path upward in broad swords of light. On the deck, a crowd of a dozen or so blue helmeted Japanese were shouting “Up! up!”. One of them even started to descend, presumably to assist, but I shouted “No!” repeatedly, shaking the ladder and waving my hands until he gave up and hopped back over the railing.
I knew I was far too weak to be doing it on my own, but I didn’t want to appear as such. I didn’t know why the Japanese had returned for me, but it was possible that they had somehow discovered that I was not just another poor fool lost at sea. The U.S. was obviously busy with the Russians, but if there was a price on my head, this could very well be the end of the line. Nevertheless, appearing weak wasn’t going to help my situation. So I managed to summon the energy, somehow, the last few molecules of adrenaline squeezed into my veins, and I put one hand over the other as the flanking wind whipped and snapped the ladder against the hull. In the mix of excited Japanese voices, some of the fishermen chanted “Go! Go! Go!”. When I was about halfway up I made the mistake of looking down. I suddenly felt dizzy, the ocean doubled in size, and the ship seemed to whirl sideways in a nauseating blur. I closed my eyes and clung to the ladder, my knuckles pinned against the cold steel of the ship’s hull, my wet clothes rippling in the wind.
“Keep it up!” Someone yelled from above.
I took a deep breath and reached for the next rung, groaning as I pulled myself up, battling for a foothold as the wind blew the ladder around below.
“Go! Go! Go!”
I strained against the nausea and reached for the next rung. And the next. And the next. Until finally hands were on me and I was hoisted up. Cool water streamed into my mouth somehow, and suddenly I was covered in blankets and being carried somewhere out of the wind. I let it all happen, too exhausted and weak to care any longer.
When I opened my eyes I was lying on a cot in a small, dimly lit room that smelled of food.
“Please eat” said a Japanese man in jeans and a yellow sweater as he set a bowl and a bottle of water on the table next to the bed.
I didn’t need convincing. I sat up, completely ignoring him, and raised the bowl to my lips. The warm broth poured into my body, awakening my stomach and stretching out into my limbs into places I had forgotten existed. There were a few noodles, a bit of meat, a brown egg, and some bamboo shoots in the soup. I was about to grab them with my fingers when the man indicated a set of wooden chopsticks in a paper slip on table. I grunted, removed the cover and shoveled the food into my mouth, not even bothering to separate the chopsticks. When the bowl was empty I hung it above my mouth and let the last few drops of broth slide onto my tongue.
The Japanese man took a seat at the table. He had a round face, bushy eyebrows, and thin gray hair combed sideways over the top of his head. He wore rectangular wire-rimmed glasses perched half-way down his nose that he removed and stuffed into his shirt pocket as I gulped water from the bottle.
“Arigatou,” I said, setting the empty bottle on the table.
The man bowed shallowly and said something incomprehensible. I presumed that from the “arigatou” he thought I might speak the language, but unfortunately “thank you” was the limit of my non-food related Japanese. When I didn’t reply he said, “I am Fukuyama Hideki. Ship doctor.”
“Wayne Robertson,” I said, weakly extending my hand over the table.
Dr. Fukuyama’s eyes lit up at the gesture, as if just recalling the traditional western-style greeting, then shook my hand with a hint of embarrassment.
“Nice to meet you, Ooh-ayn-san,” he said with a thick “oooh” instead of a “wah”. “How long were you in ocean?”
I suddenly regretted telling him my real name. I still had no idea what they knew about me, if anything. I searched for a strategy but I had nothing. I felt like shit, even after the food, maybe even weaker for some reason. “I don’t know,” I finally replied. “Many days. A lot of days.”
“So-ka. You are American, Ooh-ayn-san?”
“So-ka.” Dr. Fukuyama replaced his glasses on the bridge of his nose. That seemed to be the end of his curiosity, or perhaps the limit of what he was allowed to ask. “I would like to do tests, now is OK?”
I nodded my head. “That’s fine.”
The doctor joined me on the cot with a small doctor’s kit, then took my blood pressure, checked my heart rate and listened to my chest, looked at my tongue, and checked my reflexes. All in relative silence. When he was finished he handed me another bottle of water. “Please drink more,” he said. “You will be OK.” Then he stood to go.
“Wait,” I asked. “What’s happening? What do I do now?”
Dr. Fukuyama seemed confused by the questions, then held out his hand, dismissing them. “Captain will talk you. Please wait and drink.” He added something in Japanese, then bowed shallowly before leaving.
I gazed into the hall and noticed a blue-helmeted man who reached for the door and closed it, glancing at me suspiciously as he did. Then there was the sound of a key and the snap of a dead bolt.