A Burial At Sea

A Burial At Sea is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a novel set in Australia and China in 1885-95, provisionally titled Kerosene Creek.
15 June, 1894.

Captain Hamish Nelson, known throughout the Swire Shipping Co. as ‘Horatio’, was irritated to have his siesta disturbed. The death of a passenger was no novelty to him, but there was something disturbing about the sight that greeted him as the steward opened the door of the steerage cabin, and the stink of engine oil, damp clothes, sweat and vomit assaulted their senses like the first gust of a typhoon. In the lower bunk he made out the shape of an emaciated body, covered to the chin with a damp, grey sheet, the long nose made thinner and sharper by death, the wide-open eyes fixed on the crucifix swinging on a string of beads from the bunk above. Short bristles of grey hair poked through the tightly drawn skin on her scalp. The dead nun’s companion, on her knees beside the bunk, resembled a dark mushroom sprouting from the linoleum.

“When did this happen, Sister?”

The nun twitched, as though caught nodding off in Mass, and scrambled to her feet. A lock of red hair escaped from beneath her coif and she tried unsuccessfully to tuck it back in.

“The Lord has been calling his beloved daughter from the moment we embarked, Captain. The Holy Mother…”

Catholic mumbo-jumbo.

“What killed her, do you think?” he interrupted.

“Our sister was a martyr to seasickness…”

“But is she is infectious?” his irritation increasing, “I have thirty passengers to think of, let alone my crew.”

“Sister Magdalena begged me to take her ashore in Haiphong. She was French…” As though an explanation was needed for wanting to be buried in such a heathen country.

The steward handed the captain his reading glasses and he ran his finger down the manifest. “This is Sister Magdalena, embarked Sydney? So you must be Sister Agnes, am I right? You are bound for Hong Kong?”

“That is… was our mission, Captain.”

Christ almighty, do these nuns have no sense at all?

“Are ye’ aware that Hong Kong is under quarantine for plague?” He pointed at the body under the sheet, “D’ye think she…?”

“Neither of us has been to Hong Kong before, Captain. Neither of us has been in contact with the plague.”

“To the best of your knowledge.”

The captain consulted the manifest again, “I have two passengers listed as doctors. One’s a Chinaman… a Doctor Sun something-or-other, and Frenchman who joined us in Haiphong.” He passed the list back to the steward, “Better call them both.”

The young nun stood her ground, defiantly, in spite of the tears in her eyes, “Sister Magdalene and I are both nurses, Captain. I think we know what plague looks like.”

She’s no older than our daughter, he realized, and just as feisty.

 “I’m sure you do, Sister,” regretting his earlier irritation, “But we need a qualified doctor to sign the death certificate.” He turned to the bosun, “The cabin will need to be sealed and fumigated.”

Dr Sun. Urbane, Chinese. About 30, western haircut, neat moustache, three-piece suit, trace of an American accent? He ignored the living nun and asked for the porthole to be opened.  He raised the sheet covering Magdalena’s face and held a small mirror to her mouth. Probably keeps it for trimming his moustache. The glass fogged immediately—not a sign of life, but the humidity in the cabin. He gingerly felt for a wrist pulse, then solemnly declared the patient to be, indeed, dead. Could not be more specific, but he no longer practised medicine and had scant experience of infectious diseases. The captain asked him to sign the log to that effect.

Dr Yersin, about the same age, looked cool in a suit of tropical linen. Scrubby beard, awkward, very little English. He signalled for the door to be closed and Sister Agnes to remain, “Pour la bienséance.”

“To maintain propriety,” she translated for the captain’s benefit. Surprised she remembered so much French from the convent.

Yersin lifted the black crucifix, looked surprised at its weight, and passed it to her, then he cleared everything else from the top of the locker, and wiped it down with a damp cloth.  He laid out a multi-bladed pocket knife, a pair of scissors, tweezers, a spoon, a pencil, a small notebook and a packet of envelopes. He lifted off the sheet and folded it neatly, revealing an emaciated Chinese woman of middle age, in a stained cotton shift. He pulled back the eyelids, the whites bloodshot from constant retching. He inspected the yellow caking around the lips and scraped a sample into one of the envelopes.

“Dis-moi … the symptoms.

“It began after Singapore. She was seasick. She could not keep any food down.”

“Quel genre of food?”

“Biscuits, compote.” She showed him the box of dried fruit. “I soaked it in hot water with some sugar.”

Yersin broke off a lump of the dried fruit and dropped it into another envelope, then a spoonful of the sugar into a third.

“Stomach problems? Diarrhoea?”


“Heart beat—regular or…?”

Her heart raced so fast I thought it might jump out of her chest.

“As high as 140 beats per minute.”

“You measured it?”

“I am a nurse,” pointing to the silver watch pinned to her chest.

“Formidable.” He lifted the enamel mug and sniffed it.“Did she drink from the… robinet?” pointing to the tap over the basin.

“I made tea for her.” She showed him the tin box. “The hot water was from the galley.”

He took a pinch of the tea and sniffed it. “Oolong, or Tieguanyin?” He dropped a pinch of crumbled tea leaves into another envelope.

“Do you also… eat and drink?” He waved at the envelopes.

“In the dining room. I kept the fruit for her. I don’t like Chinese tea.”

He probed the skin around the neck for swollen glands, then he asked her permission to raise the cotton shift.

“So thin,” he sighed.

Leg and hip bones clearly defined beneath translucent dermis. Arms no more than toothpicks without muscle. Breasts mere flaps of skin on the ripple-sand of rib bones. He felt for the glands in in the arm pits and groin. He turned the corpse over and pointed to red welts on the back. “Bed soresor fléau? Apologies, I do not know the English.”

The slap, slap, slap of the scourge on that delicate back. So weak but so insistent. She shook her head “Bed sores.”

He nodded without acknowledging the lie, let the body fall back, and pulled down the shift. Bienséance again. He wrote in the notebook while she arranged her dead companion’s hands and threaded rosary beads through the stiffening fingers.

“May I wash?”

She handed him soap and a towel. He washed and dried his hands meticulously. Checking his fingernails. “Please wash also. To wash is important. For not obtain the infections.”

Yersin reported to the captain that the cause of death was unclear, but there were no indications of plague. Her symptoms resembled poisoning, perhaps salmonelle from something she ate. She was severely dehydrated from vomiting—no doubt compounded by mal de mer and the unhealthy miasma of the cabin. It could also be any of a dozen tropical parasites. An autopsy would be necessary to establish the cause of death. He would write a report for the Hong Kong coroner.

“Not posible,” the Captain set his jaw firmly. “There’s two days sailing to Hong Kong and in this heat—to be blunt—she’ll be rancid before we dock. I have to think of the other passengers. We’ll give her a sea burial.” He turned to Agnes, “I trust you won’t object, Sister?”

He thinks you’re a pushover. Don’t let him get away with it, the voice whispered.

“Will there be a priest?”

“A ship’s captain is authorised to conduct funerals… and weddings for that matter. Personally, I’m a Quaker, but we both worship the same God, unless I’m mistaken.”

Insist on a priest!

She ignored the voice “I’m sure a protestant prayer will not keep Sister Magdalena from Heaven. But I’ll say a few words in Latin, if you don’t mind.” She looked him in the eye and smiled, “To satisfy the Pope.”

It was the same sly smile his daughter would flash when she wanted to get around him.  His flinty sailor’s heart softened a little. 

He nodded towards the bosun, “Andy will see to the shroud.” To the steward, “No matter what the doctor says, I want this cabin fumigated.” And to Agnes, “Your clothes should be disinfected before you go ashore.”

“I’d like to stay with our Sister as long as possible,” she said. “Pray for her soul.”

“You can have an hour, then Andy will need the body.” He consulted his watch, “It’s 14:20 now. We’ll put her to rest at 17:00 on the after deck.” He turned abruptly and clattered up the companionway. The bosun produced a carpenter’s ruler and quickly measured the body.

Agnes replaced the black crucifix on the locker and knelt before it. She tried to clear her mind and continue the psalm. “Tibi, tibi soli peccavi et malum coram te feci…”

I have a bad feeling about this, interrupted Mary Star of the Sea, You should have stood up to him.

The Virgin Mary first appears to Agnes when she is ten years old. The Holy Mother is hovering in the steam above the copper as she washes her father’s work clothes.

Make sure you add ammonia,” instructes the VM, “It dissolves the grease.”

“I know,” replies Agnes. “My mother taught me that.”

The Queen of Angels reaches down and lifts a trouser leg from the boiling, soapy water and inspects it closely. “I’m pleased to see that Malachi still has the cleanest overalls in the village. I’m going to let you off a dozen Hail Marys today.”

Agnes pushes the bubbling mass of garments back under the water with the simmer-smooth wooden copper stick. “Thank you Holy Mother.” She genuflects, and crosses herself with a soapy finger.

The body of Sister Magdalena lay on a plank set on two trestles, level with the railing at the stern of the ship.  The nun shared the canvas shroud with an iron gear wheel, a shoemaker’s last and several lumps of rusty engine parts. The captain, first mate and bosun stood to one side of the plank, Sister Agnes stood alone on the other side. A sailor in starched white uniform stood at attention at the head of the plank.  Dr Yersin and Dr Sun, plus a dozen curious passengers, watched from a respectful distance. One passenger stood apart from the rest—tall, dark skinned with an eye patch. He appeared more interested in Dr Sun than in the ceremony. When he noticed Agnes looking at him, he smiled back at her, showing a gold tooth.

Look away, whispered the Mother of Divine Counsel, He’s the Devil, waiting to snag her soul.

She scanned the horizon for a landmark, a building, a mountain, so in the future she could locate Magdalena on a map—Mother Superior was sure to ask. Ridiculous. She tried to concentrate her mind on the pitifully small canvas-wrapped parcel before her. The oil-stained cloth, cut from a hatch cover, rough sewn with black cobbler’s twine. Hardly a proper vessel for a nun’s last voyage. She wanted to tell someone that Magdalena’s fine needlework was famous in a dozen convents.

Vanity was not one of Maggie’s sins, pronounced the Mother of Divine Grace shimmering in the salty air above the railing, The Lord won’t judge her by the stitching of her shroud.

The captain opened his prayer book and read: “Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

The fornicator Orbiston pronounces the same words over her mother, in his mellifluous, sanctimonious, stage-Irish brogue as though he is auditioning for a part in a melodrama. She is hypnotised by his egg-shaped hypocritical head and piggy eyes, searching—always searching—for weaknesses in those around him. May Kelly, no longer vulnerable in her wooden box, balanced like a kookaburra on a branch above the open grave, no longer vulnerable. She would be just the tenth tenant—count them!—of the Kerosene Creek cemetery. The only witnesses: 10 year old Agnes, gripping her father with one hand and clutching a bunch of wildflowers with the other; Constable and Mrs Duff, their six daughters, and Jude holding the edge of Agnes’s cardigan for comfort; Gavin Croker the gravedigger; and Henry  Orbiston, who thinks he is God.

Afterwards, Charlotte Duff embraces Malachi and kisses Agnes on both salty cheeks, “Such a pity Father O’Brien could not be here.”

“Aye, the gout is an unforgiving taskmaster,” comments Gavin Croker, as he shovels dirt onto the coffin and spits a glistening gob of tobacco that hangs like a jiggling jewel in a spider’s web.

She hadn’t prepared a eulogy, but when the Captain nodded to her, it poured out like a torrent from a spring.

“Sister Mary Magdalena, you were born in Taiping, China in 1835 and given the name Jing-fei, which means “fragrant stillness”, a name you tried to live up to, but you were known to fail when confronted with cruelty and injustice. You took the name of the blessed saint when you entered the order of the Daughters of Charity. You brought comfort to the sick and downtrodden in Africa, in India and in the goldfields of New South Wales. Your next mission was to the victims of the black death in China. But…” Agnes paused, then took a deep breath, “However it was not to be.”

She looked up into the red ball of the sun hanging above the horizon at the end of the ship’s wake. She addressed it directly in a voice choking with bitterness. “Why not? Why did you deny your daughter time to complete her mission on earth? Why did you make her suffer so much pain?  What is your excuse…” she paused, “Your excuse for casting our sister aside like a…” she waved her hand in the direction of the shroud, “Like a bag of…?”

The passengers looked away in embarrassment, grew restless, then began whispering among themselves. At length, she recovered her poise and laid her hand on the rough canvas. “Lord, grant that Sister Magdalena sleep in peace beneath your waters until you waken her to glory. In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti. Amen.

The captain nodded. The sailor lifted his end of the plank. Nothing happened. He shook the plank, but the shroud would not move. The first mate stepped in to assist and they raised the plank higher, until… Sister Magdalena, weighed down with more ironware than necessary, abruptly overcame the coefficient of friction and slid down the plank, across the railing and into the foaming wake.

Captain Nelson saluted. Agnes untangled the string of rosary beads from her fingers and threw it in a high arc so that it landed in Magdalena’s receding ripples. A few of the watchers clapped. It wasn’t clear whether the applause was for Sister Magdalena or Sister Agnes’s prodigious throw.

Captain Nelson opened a door on the main deck. “I’ve ordered your cabin sealed for the remainder of the voyage. Please stay in this one for the remainder. Razak will look after you.”  The unreadable face of the Malay steward appeared silently at the captain’s shoulder. “Give him your clothes to wash. And I hope we will have the pleasure of your company at dinner.”

Two brown suitcases stood forlornly on the Persian rug in the first class cabin resembling a pair of shabby beggars trying to look inconspicuous in a seraglio.

“This captain wife private cabin,” said Razak. “She not on board at this time.” He handed her a cotton laundry bag, subtly wrinkling his nose as he spoke, “Captain order your dress to laundry and fumigate. Leave outside door please. Return tomorrow.” He opened a cupboard displaying a vertical rainbow of dresses. He slid out a drawer, revealing a flower garden of brightly coloured undergarments. “Captain say please borrow Missy Nelson clothes. She your size or thereabout.” He bowed slightly and opened the door. “Dinner at seven. I will ring.” And he was gone.

A large double bed with starched, white sheets. A square window with curtains. A low table with ash ray and easy chairs. Roll-top desk. And—I must be dreaming—a private bathroom with hot and cold taps, multi-coloured bottles of lotions and oils, scented soap, soft towels.

In the convent, nuns had to wear a shift while bathing in cold water.

Lead us not into temptation, admonished the stern voice in her ear.

“Try and stop me.” She closed and latched the door, removed her habit, sweat-stained cotton knickers and black woollen stockings, and stepped naked under the shower. She shivered with exquisite pleasure as the needles of hot water massaged her exhausted body.

Athanasian wench, accused the Virgin Mary, taking care not to be splashed herself.

“What’s wrong with being naked?”

Flaunting your body in front of men.

“I’d never do that.”

You went naked swimming with Johnny Fong. He looked at your titties.

“I didn’t have any titties. I was twelve.”

You looked at his willy.

“He kept his hands in front.”

She washed her hair for the first time in weeks, with Mrs Nelson’s jasmine-scented French shampoo. Wrapped herself in a towel as big as a bedsheet. Packed her nun’s uniform into the laundry bag. Then, with a quiver of guilty pleasure, pulled on a pair of green silk culottes françaises from the extravagant underwear drawer. Lay down in the centre of the huge bed, cradled in soft pillows.

“Is it a sin to accept such luxury through the sacrifice of another?” she asked aloud.

Quicunque vult, commented the Mother of Sorrows. Whosoever wishes to be saved.

Was it the memory of beautiful Magdalena or the sensuous afterglow of the shower that gave her hands permission to stray? First, they gently cupped her breasts until her nipples stood erect They moved downward, brushing her stomach, sending thrilling ripples across her skin. Finally they slipped beneath the elastic waist band of Mrs Nelson’s knickers.

“Salvus esse,” she whispered before oblivion overtook her. “Be saved.”

A buzzing miasma of summer heat shimmers across the valley. Dragonflies play zig-zag above the waterhole. Agnes and Johnny are on the bank, sparring with wooden staves: one, two, forward, slash, withdraw, back… The routine that Uncle Lu drilled into them. Johnny stopped mid-slash and drops his weapon.

“It’s too hot. I’m going for a swim.

Without waiting for an answer, he strips off his trousers and shirt. His body is brass-brown like the gleaming metal that Malachi forges and lathes into intricate machine parts. Sweat glistens on his stomach. His willy sticks out from between his legs like a thumb from a balled fist. He takes one step and dives like a kingfisher into the waterhole. She unbuttons her blouse, steps out of her shorts and stands naked and shameless on the bank until Johnny surfaces, blowing air. His pigtail flicks around his head, spraying a spiral of sparkling droplets. She waits, poised until she is sure he has had an eyeful, then she pulls off a bomb that has him ducking for cover.

Beneath the surface the world is silent and deep green. A shaft of light picks out pale frog legs kicking. Then he duck-dives and his face approaches. Pale, flat, distorted, bubbles streaming from his nose…

A discreet knock on the door and the tinkling of a bell woke her from the dream. A cramp was tearing at her stomach—the wrong time of the month, surely? Hunger. How long since she had eaten more than a dry biscuit? She looked around for her nun’s habit and veil—gone to the laundry. She looked across at the wardrobe. Would it be a sin?

Remember your vows.

“I am so hungry.”

Modesty, chastity, obedience.

She opened the wardrobe. “It can’t hurt to look.”

Mrs Nelson’s taste went to silks and satins in primary colours, feathered trims, embroidered flowers, sequins, rhinestones. No marks for modesty. She lifted out a scarlet Thai-silk dress with an embroidered gold dragon on the front, its nose nuzzling the high neckline, its tail wrapped sensuously around the skirt, which was slit on each side to the thigh.

The VM gasped, What kind of trollop would wear a dress like this?

She shook her head and smiled, “Outrageous.”

Be careful. I sense the Devil at work.

She held the dress against herself in the full-length mirror.

Quicunque vult, salvus esse, purred the Holy Mother.

Hunger overcame modesty and obedience: “Just for tonight. I shall be an Athanasian wench.”

The dress fitted perfectly, though she had a little trouble understanding how the Chinese shoulder fastenings worked. She selected a pair of red, patent leather shoes that fitted reasonably well. She disciplined her hair with a pair of silver-handled brushes and nervously applied a slash of scarlet lipstick. She checked the mirror again: There goes chastity.

But, the costume still lacked something. A contrast.

Your nun’s cross, suggested the Mother of Good Counsel, You could wear it to cover the dragon.

She lifted her battered suitcase onto the bed and withdrew a box. Inside was a carved jade pendant on a silver chain. She inspected the effect in the mirror.

Heathen idolatry, gasped the VM.

“He said it would bring me luck,” she replied, and opened the cabin door onto the deck, as the bell tinkled the second time for dinner.

Dr Yersin, who wrote a letter to his mother every day for 30 years, described the new guest at dinner that night.

Perhaps early-20s, with an open face and a clear complexion. Artfully undisciplined red hair framing freckled cheeks and clear blue eyes. She was boldly dressed in a scarlet silk cheuhngsaam that showed off a shapely figure, slim waist and strong legs. I am mystified as to the reason, but her appearance provoked in me an unsettling sense of déjà vu.

Captain Nelson introduced her to the other guests: “Miss Agnes Fiadh Kelly, who joined us in Haiphong.”

Fear? An intriguing name, if you don’t mind me saying so,” enquired Dr Sun, without any sign of recognition. Who notices a nun’s face?

“In Gaelic, ‘Fiadh’ means ‘wild’,” explained the Captain, holding out a chair for her. “In Scotland we have the word ‘fiadhaich’. It describes the untamed landscape of the Highlands.

In this case it describes your hair.

Agnes smiled at the other guests, “It was my Irish grandmother’s name.” She noticed with some alarm the baffling array of cutlery lined up on both sides of her plate.

Mrs Foley-Jessup, mutton dressed as lamb, with rouged cheeks and permanent wave, asked, “Did you catch this afternoon’s sea burial Miss Kelly?” She could have been referring to the finals of the deck quoits.

Miss Jenkins, moon-shaped glasses shining over her spoon: “Quite entertaining, I thought. In an anthropological sort of fashion.”

“Don’t like funerals,” humphed Colonel Morgan-Stanley, blowing soup through his moustache. “Honoured guest at my own soon enough, what?” He poked the pale and overweight young woman beside him with his elbow.

“Is it true she died of plague?” whispered Miss Jenkins.

“Definitely not,” answered the Captain, “The doctor confirmed it.”

“Perhaps she was murdered,” whispered the Colonel’s young companion.

“A mystery worthy of Mr Wilkie Collins, don’t you think so Colonel?” added Mrs Foley-Jenkins. “What would he call it I wonder?”

“The Woman in Black, I should think, what!” He looked around for appreciation, but was met with blank stares, “Woman in White” Wilkie Collins, don’t you know?” Morgan-Stanley turned to his companion, who twitched in anticipation of another dig in the ribs. “My daughter has all his novels, don’t you Morgana?”

Morgana nodded and nibbled on a crouton.

“I felt so sorry for her young companion,” Mrs Foley-Jessop continued. “What will she do now, I wonder?”

“Missionary work, I believe. In Hong Kong.” The captain cast a secret glance at Agnes. Eyes down! She tried not to slurp her soup.

Mr Foley-Jessup—a voice the timbre of a fart in a tuba, “Why anyone would voluntarily go ashore in a plague port beggars the imagination. You’d have to be mad. Or suicidal.”

Dr Sun looked up sharply, “I will disembark in Hong Kong, and I possess neither of those qualities, I hope.”

“I read that corpses are piling up in the streets.” Miss Jenkins, wide-eyed, “Mainly Chinese of course.”

“Thankfully, the white man seems immune to the pestilence.  It gives one faith in British breeding,” wheezed the Colonel.

Sh knew that the Holy Mother of God would chastise her for putting an oar in, but Agnes couldn’t stop herself. “Colonel, are you referring to the white men that brought pox, plague and pestillence to Australia and nearly wiped out the native people? I believe they were British.”

A shocked silence. Agnes stared back defiantly. Miss Morgan-Stanley began to sob. Dr Sun broke the ice.

“Miss Kelly is right. Disease is blind to breeding and race.  The British in Hong Kong avoid the plague because they build their houses on the mountain, high above the miasma, where the disease cannot establish a foothold. The Chinese workers, on the other hand, are crowded into slums along the shoreline, where the air is foetid, the sanitation is inadequate and the food is rotten. If the British really wanted to eliminate the plague they could begin by enforcing their own housing laws.”

Colonel Morgan-Stanley, seeing himself under attack on two sides, tried a diversionary tactic, “Where would you Australians and Chinese be without British civilisation? Eh?”

A temporary truce was called while the steward served the meat and vegetables, then Sun continued, “The Chinese newspapers spread the view that the British exported the plague from Hong Kong to Canton to embarrass the government in Peking and draw further trade concessions. I personally do not subscribe to that view…”

“What is your view then, Doctor?” The question was hostile, but Sun seemed oblivious.

“If there is a political dimension to the plague, it is actually the incompetence of the Manchu government who allowed the disease to escape from Yunnan to Canton. The British are doing the best they can under the circumstances.” Dr Sun sat back and took up his knife and fork, “My struggle is not with Britain, it is with the Manchu emperor and his mandarins.”

“You’re a doctor, you say?” hooted Foley-Jessup.

“I qualified at the Hong Kong College of Medicine, but I gave up practising medicine for what I consider a higher cause. These days, my ‘patient’ is China itself.”

Miss Jenkins’s role in life was changing the subject to avoid unpleasantness. She turned her moon-shaped glasses on Agnes: “Your jade pendant is most unusual, Miss Kelly. I can’t work out what animal it represents.”

“It was given to me by a friend.”

“Is it a unicorn?”

Dr Sun put down his knife and fork again. “It is called a Ch’i-lin. A mythical Chinese beast, part dragon, part lion, part deer. It appears on earth to signal that momentous changes are about to take place.”

After dinner, Agnes made her way to the after-deck. The railing had been replaced and all signs of Magdalena’s final journey had been removed. The moon was full; the ship’s wake was a phosphorescent track all the way to the horizon. 

She leaned over the rail and vomited her dinner into the South China Sea.

April 2021