Marlow was not typical, both in the way he told his stories and in his general demeanor, but— if such a thing were at all possible— Vitaly was even less so. The two of them made a strange pair, Marlow sitting cross-legged like an idol, Vitaly sprawled out on his back, head in Marlow’s lap. There was an easy, physical affection between them, although neither appeared overly warm to anyone else. Vitaly would occasionally seem to release his inhibitions and talk freely among the rest of the crew, but something would inevitably snap too sharply back into place. Something fearful and animalistic, that made him flinch away from the smallest motion or raised voice, and that could only be calmed by Marlow’s presence. As it were, each rarely went out of the other’s sight.
On slow, drifting nights such as this one, their present seating arrangement was not unusual. Nobody commented on it, not even when Marlow begin to absentmindedly stroke Vitaly’s hair. Both were as good or better sailors as anyone else aboard the Nellie, and no mariner in all of England could spin better yarns. It was in their nature: Marlow followed the sea, old soul that he was, and Vitaly followed anything that could lead to new adventures. At the present, that ‘anything’ was Marlow. Theirs was a bond forged by time, but also by a shared knowledge of the darkness of mankind.
When they told the story of their first meeting— words weaving together so that one could scarcely tell where one voice ended and the other begin— an almost palpable energy permeated the ship, like that of a theater after the last words of a Greek tragedy had echoed through the night air. That story carried a sense of being unfinished, but nobody pressed them for the details. The atmosphere was uneasy. Perhaps it was one of the perils of telling such stories at night, with no sound but the creaking of the ship’s hull, endless stars above that seemed almost alive with cosmic energy; the tale came with eyes that stared into the back of one’s head until he turned around, only to find empty space where he had been certain a skeletal figure had stood only seconds ago. Superstitions were common among sailors, but whatever horror had followed the pair all the way back from the Congo was more than a figment of any man’s imagination.
To the rest of the crew, at least.
To Marlow and Vitaly, it was a memory. One that would best be forgotten, filed away like so many documents in a clerk’s cabinets, locked up and only to be taken out in parts and after careful selection.
The story became impersonal, like something that could have happened to anyone in the ivory-trading business. The crew could laugh at Marlow’s storming around the ship on the hunt for rivets, or whisper among themselves in shock at the rebels’ heads on posts facing the station, but they would never know the station-master’s name.
Names have power.
Marlow’s last bit of the story was drawing to a close. Just as he repeated his last words to Kurtz’s intended, “He said your name-“ Vitaly cut him off.
“Penelope.” It was the first word he had spoken all night. The listeners’ eyes flickered down to face him, but he made no move to look back at them, speaking to Marlow as if they were alone on the ship. “That was her name. He told me.”