Royal Tar

Lou Gardner


You wrap my feet in wool blankets and head out to sea. I nestle deep in the sheets but lie awake and listen to you leave. You pack little, only one change of drawers and what’s on your back, plus a little satchel with a miniature of Mother and your razor and comb. You want to get the ship in ship-shape before you embark the next day.

The Royal Tar is a steamboat, a hulking, bloated mass with coal smoldering in its belly, leeching noxious fumes into the October winds ripping across the harbor in St. John, Eastpoint. You embark, but it takes three days at anchor to set off—the storm winds don’t favor your path. Finally, on the third day, you’re cutting across a wide blue landscape, the floor bucking beneath your steady feet.

There’s a strange sound like a trumpet, then a flurry of stomping that resonates through the deck. It’s the elephant, star of the menagerie onboard: two giraffes, two camels, a zebra, and a thousand colorful birds each in its own delicate cage. You strain to hear them over the oceanic roar—staccato tunes, a jaded snort, feet tapping muffled morse code.

On the fourth day, everything goes up in flames. The fire starts over the boiler under the deck where the animal cages sit. When the screaming starts, it sounds human. You are busy lowering a rescue boat, making plans, waving your arms, but you stop every once in a while to look at what has happened: a horse on fire can’t help but run. Elephants do not know how to swim. Bird cages don’t float. You feel like you are suffocating, but it’s not the smoke. You remember the dozens of life-sized wax figures on board only when a pale man with no arms floats by, expressionless.


When people, screaming louder than even the horses, leap overboard, you reach out your arms as if to catch them. They thrash in the surf until you pull them onboard and remind each one of them that they are alive. You save so many people, dragging them out of the water, that you almost convince yourself it’s everyone. You only learn the number of lives lost days later, in the newspaper—thirty-two, ten of them children.


While you are watching your world burn from a tiny boat so packed with cold, wet bodies that you can’t lift your arms, I am forgetting how to breathe. It used to be so easy, so easy I never thought about it. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. But now, I struggle to find my lungs, to locate the muscles I need to relax to bring in air. Too much time is passing; I can’t think clearly. Everything is soft and dim, as though someone has covered the candle with a shade. The wool blankets are wrapped around my feet. When I go, you and I are both staring at a flame.




LOU GARDNER is a trans, queer, and bipolar writer from Southern California. He briefly studied at the MFA in Fiction at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His work has been published in Mid-American Review, Stonecrop Magazine, L’Esprit Literary Review, and the University of Essex’s Short Fiction. Gardner’s work has also placed first in Darling Axe’s 2021 First Page Challenge and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival’s 2022 Very Short Fiction Contest. He lives in Los Angeles. You can find him on Instagram @formerbimbo.


The art that appears alongside this piece is by AMY RENEE WEBB.