by R.L. Robinson
(Manuscript recovered by the whale ship Fury, arctic sea, 1845)
Screams from above reached sickbay, and I found Borr raving up above, covering the deck with bloody, smeared smiles. Three others held him as I opened my bag; his screams wound down to watery gurgles.
When I got him into sickbay later, I asked, knowing he wouldn’t live through the night, if there was anyone I should write to for him. We were passing into the arctic places and it might be some time before we could next put into port.
A certain kind of man may find himself on a ship and he will bring with him a certain kind of madness. In many ways, it’s looked for. I can’t say I am any different. I’m the doctor onboard, though not one onshore.
Think of the kinds of frustrations you would encounter in such a place. It’s the sort of environment where everything can be taken as a slight — someone talks too loudly, or a bad joke or annoying laugh follows you about in your head all day until you have the fellow’s eyes out over cards the same night.
Everyone exists at the point of violence, and there are few real things one can do to pass the time. Drinking yourself blind and gambling are the two chief activities, as well as fishing, but precious little else. Stranger men still were the ones who took up this last with enthusiasm. They weren’t really fishing; the water was far too deep to catch anything. They just stood at the rail with a rod in their hands, smiling at the ocean.
There were times when the sea decided to purge itself of something; something without eyes or tentacles, or something like a sphincter with a maw of needle teeth. When these things were offered up by the sea, these men found themselves engaged in a second’s violent murder, still smiling all the time.
Oft times I would take the creatures and what remained of them before they could cast them back to the depths. For my part, there was a certain medical curiosity.
Other times, they wouldn’t cast them to the waves below, but into a cauldron or pot they set up on deck. They did not eat them, but dropped them into the boiling water only to see them change, or not. The cauldron’s own hunger for their offerings reflected the hunger each of them felt.
In truth, it was marked on all of our faces.
Ice becomes a fact of life when travelling in northern climes hunting for whales. It gets into your lungs, your skin; smell and pain become things you forget you had.
If strange men take to life onboard a ship, stranger women take to life in such ports as there are in the arctic places. There were always enough to keep us warm. A mixed bunch for sure: Russians, Estonians, Lithuanians, and Poles, with the odd Scandinavian blonde thrown in here and there. Such women as there were never took coin. Nothing worth spending it on, so payment came down to a night’s warmth and distraction.
We came into one such port. It was the sort of place where fathers might lie with daughters in winter — where rats amounted to the town watch. We heard a story in what served as tavern, brothel, and hotel.
“There was a ship goin’ north, much as you boys are,” the old duffer said.
As long as we kept his cup filled, he was content to talk while we waited for our turn upstairs. Not that I was taking part, but where the crew goes, it’s advisable for the doctor to follow.
“I’stead of findin’ whales, what they got was ice, and they was locked in for the winter.” He smiled, displaying a mouth mostly empty, save for a few stone-like teeth. “There was seals close by, so it weren’t so bad as all ‘at. They wasn’t goin’ to starve or nothing…naw, it was boredom what started to thin their faces.” He paused as a woman upstairs cried out, long and hard and much too much for show.
“The seals, ye see,” the old man tapped his temple knowingly. “They was too easy to kill, so there weren’t no fun in it. Then no booze, and they’d played cards so much, they knew every crease and crinkle in the deck so it weren’t no fun neither.”
He slid his battered mug across the table, and it was left to me to pour the rum to keep him talking.
“Some fella thought it’d be a grand idea to break out the guns. They made snowmen, see? Dressed ‘em up in spare clothes; maybe imagined they was someone they didn’t like none. Heh, problem was once the shootin’ started, weren’t no stoppin’ it.”
A sailor, one of the younger ones from the crew, stumbled into the common room still doing his trousers up. His face practically glowed with warmth. Another quickly sidestepped a couple more who were half up before realizing they weren’t going to beat the other’s head start.
The old man continued, “They killed the seals first; shot ‘em all to pieces. Took ‘bout thirty minutes or so, but they run out of fun in the end.” He looked down and shuffled his feet. There was something genuine in the gesture, but practiced storytellers know how to lure an audience in.
“Back on the boat, they was in the middle of givin’ the guns back to the master-at-arms, when one bright spark lets his off at a friend. Just for a laugh, mind, but it weren’t long before they was shootin’ at each other and laughin’ all the while.” He presses a thumb and forefinger against the edges of his lips to stretch his smile. “They was all froze up when they found ‘em, with smiles like ‘at splittin’ their faces.”
Each of us understood what he was saying.
It wasn’t madness that killed them, but boredom. It’s a far more insidious disease and one which, as a doctor, I am unable to treat. Hence why we found ourselves in such a place as this rickety and chilly rat-hole of a port, where only terminally bored men come. With each man waiting his turn for a few moments of warmth and something, anything, to take the drudgery away, even if only for a little while before facing it again.
Several days later, we sighted a pod of whales breaching ahead of us to starboard. The prospect of work, our work, filled the crew with renewed vigor.
We no longer took things quite so personally as before. We could tolerate a laugh or bad joke because we could all taste the chance of action to take our minds off it. Such a change brought on its own dangers; a kind of mania not easily doused, even with drink. Indeed, it seemed as if some eye of madness settled over the ship and crew, just waiting for us to blink and consume ourselves.
I lost a patient on the second day of our pursuit. The result of an infection I failed to notice, once I treated the initial wound. A second died a day later, and I am not able to say for sure what killed him.
Shouts from the deck on the third day drew me topside, along with most of the others. Were the whales now within striking distance? I fancied I could almost hear the boats being lowered.
One was, in fact, but for a wholly different reason.
She was perhaps twenty or twenty-five, but no more, I should say. We never learned her name or age due to her being mute, though I could find no physical reason for her affliction.
We found her adrift in a battered boat, with no markings and nothing on her person to say where she might have come from. The Captain himself and two men he trusted stood watch at the door as I treated her. I could feel the rest of the crew pressing in through the walls and deck. She most definitely offered a distraction from boredom, though of the kind that could destroy the ship and the authority of the Captain.
“What can you say?” He loomed at my back, as unadmittedly eager to see her as the others, I suspected.
“Not much. She’s not eaten in more than a day and about the same for drink, if the state of her lips and mouth is anything to go by.”
“Not just salt burn?”
“No, but once we get her warm and fed, she should be alright,” was about the best I could offer.
“Anything in her clothes say much?”
She wasn’t naked on the table, though her dress was so soaked as to be nearly transparent.
“No, and we checked the jacket she’d been wrapped in.” I waved to where the assistant was washing it. “Just a sailor’s pea coat; could’ve come from any ship you care to mention.”
“Any gazettes I have will be long out of date,” he said as he sucked his tongue. “No way of knowing what ships would be up this way.”
“Someone gave her that jacket, or was with her in the boat.”
The idea she might’ve pushed a dead man into the water wasn’t as far-fetched as you might think. The sea changes people, strips away compassion until there’s nothing but rationality as cold as the waves.
“Will she be able to walk about once she’s awake?”
“I wouldn’t advise it, but if I’d been a long time alone on a boat, I might feel the need to stretch my legs.”
“Could be a problem.”
“Aye, that it could.”
Before she came onboard, the crew could be said to act as one body, with the Captain acting as its head. Now we were following her with our own eyes and using our own minds. Where once there was a crew, there was now only a group of individuals. This is why women are not permitted onboard ship.
I saw it and so did the Captain, though neither of us was immune to it. As I feared, she walked even when she was barely able.
I had her clothes washed and pressed and a bath drawn for her in sickbay — I waited outside the door, of course. Hot water and relatively clean clothes restored some measure of color to her hair and skin. Though her black curls were in need of another woman’s touch, the crew would no doubt have been eager to volunteer to fill such a position.
Once dressed, she drifted about sickbay for a bit while I tossed questions at her. She ignored them and examined the shelves lining the walls. Odd I thought, and she made strange bobbing movements of her head here and there. I swear she butted her nose gently against one or two of the glass jars.
There was something off-putting about the way she walked, her head moving in time with her steps. Like a bird. But I said nothing and put it down to her time in the boat, God alone knew how long that may have been.
She either was truly mute or had suffered some sort of psychic break during her time at sea. I can’t say either way, though she understood if I told her not to touch something. She went everywhere with the black sailor’s coat draped about her shoulders. Likely it served as a kind of talisman, most probably because it was the only thing to provide any degree of comfort to her in recent days.
Once on deck, and even with me trailing a bit behind her, it was a different matter. The men avoided her, but couldn’t help but stare after her. She repeated the same odd pattern of walking, eyes blinking as she tilted her head from side to side while examining something.
From his position near the wheel, the Captain enjoyed a view of the main deck. His gaze held the men in line, but it was a fraying cord at best. We both sensed it, so he descended to walk among the crew. A hard look or nudge here and there would, he probably thought, restore his authority.
It was also my cue to get her back below.
In the end, neither thing happened.
It was Nils.
What to say about Nils? Swedish by birth, he was quick to throw in at cards. Too quiet for the liking of most of the crew, except when he drank — which had been often of late.
I never saw him reaching behind me to take me unawares and so make for the girl, along with any else who wanted. The Captain saw and grabbed his hand.
Nils had his knife out before anyone could stop him. As I turned at the commotion, Nils flicked his hand out and ended the Captain where he stood. I couldn’t stop the bleeding, and four men pinned Nils to the deck. It took two more to hold him in place, his eyes rolling wildly and spittle flying from his mouth as he shouted and raved.
All the while, she stood and watched, though her eyes weren’t fixed on the man who’d intended her harm; rather, it was the blood pooling on the deck that she fixed upon. I had other concerns, so put it from my mind as part of her condition.
Rawlins was first mate. A hard-bitten Canadian, he was Captain now. With Nils still pinned, the shock of mutiny did something to strengthen rather than tear the cord of authority he now held.
His decision was simple: “Lash him to the mast, high up as you can. A day and a night, and see if he lives.”
Later, with the girl sedated in sickbay and two men Rawlins trusted at the door, I watched Nils. He was so high it didn’t seem possible the ropes could hold him there.
“He won’t last the night, doctor,” the Captain reassured me.
The Swede had long ago screamed himself hoarse, but you could still catch rasps under the wind. I thought he was trying to say something, but it was impossible to say what.
“What about the woman?”
Rawlins smiled, seldom a good sign. “The order stands; she’s with you until we put in somewhere.”
The next day, we took Nils down.
His skin was burned raw from the ropes, wind, and salty spray. In truth, the man barely looked human anymore. It was clear he’d not see out the day. I was proved right, but before we carried him below, he raised a hand as best he could and pointed.
“You didn’t hear me…you couldn’t see…her,” he croaked.
Following the line of his upraised, crooked finger, we caught sight of what he’d seen from his enforced vantage point.
Two days it has followed us. The Bird the crew has dubbed it, lacking the energy for any other moniker.
Black and larger than a crow, it should not be able to follow us. So far from land, it should’ve fallen away to somewhere else long ago.
We took it for a shit eater to begin with; something waiting for us to leave scraps behind for it to gorge on. Only the woman seemed untroubled by it, and even less so when a second bird appeared next to the first and joined in pursuing us north.
Something told me she knew about it, but would never tell us what.
She slept well enough, given she was sharing a room with a corpse wrapped in sailcloth. I trusted the lateness of the hour to leave sickbay. I felt a strong need to clear my head and fought the urge to sample my own sedatives.
Not tonight, I thought. Not now. I made sure my pistol was loaded; a habit I would’ve preferred to forgo, but which was now very familiar to me.
I was not long on deck when I saw it. I would’ve passed it by, if not for the fact it was darker than the night enveloping us.
So close, the Bird was truly monstrous.
Had it taken the liking, I am sure it could’ve enfolded me in the span of its wings. A long beak caught what light the deck lamps threw out, as did its eyes, which fixed upon me with a keen intelligence. I have no memory of drawing the pistol, nor do I recall hearing the shot that must have followed.
The right side of its head was washed away in a cloud of smoke and blood.
Gunfire drew the men on watch, and there were a few tense moments where I only gradually became aware of their questions. After I explained, they seemed at ease.
The visions – I cannot say dreams, I know now they were more than that – came later in the night.
Visions of sacking, pillaging exposed coastline, and laying bare the women and men we found there. We made little distinction, though it was more about power than simple lust to spill our seed. The faces of the men with me were those of the crew, though our dress was ancient and rattling. The ship we sailed in was equally old; something more familiar to Nils and the stories he may have grown up with.
I woke with a start; sure I could taste blood in my mouth. She was gone, and a rush of footsteps on the deck above made me panic.
Running up top, I feared the worst, though I don’t know what I expected to do if confronted by it. One gun against the crew would do little good.
She was not there, though.
Instead, the crew was occupied with a dark shape circling us overhead in the early morning light. It was low and close, turning like a gyre around the mast.
“You only killed one,” Rawlins said. I’d come to his side among the crowd by chance.
“Damn fool,” he said and nodded forward to the prow.
A wall of fog rose ahead of us, and it seemed as if the black bird was guiding us towards it, though the sails caught no wind.
We watched it approach, with the ocean empty beneath us and the crew standing in silence. As the ship disappeared around us, and then one man from the other lost in the mist, we heard a sound that was not the wind. Wet and rancid, it breathed down at us without stirring the fog, and we knew we had come home for our sins.
©2016 R.L. Robinson — Published electronically at DigitalFictionPub.com: February 18, 2016. You may link to or share this post with full and proper attribution; however, the author retains the complete and unrestricted copyright to this work. Commercial use or distribution of any kind is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
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