by Robert Pope
As the only man aboard The Draak who spoke pure English, I naturally had difficulty of communication. My shipmates came from every corner of the world, from blackest black to the whitest white, gold and yellow, ruddy and red, tan and ochre, all had a representative shipboard. As for teeth, they had not a common number between them.
I had taken passage for parts unknown, having no more home to speak of than the alley cat, though once I had known hearth and home, all of which disappeared when they ferreted out such as myself and sent what family remained to the devil or far reaches of the known universe. Narrowly escaping with my life, what remained of it was hardly worth keeping though difficult to let go.
I no longer traveled to escape vengeance of the Lairds. I kept in motion because I knew no other life; with the disguising of my identity, I had almost forgotten my name. I lent a hand, even if it meant I must swab the deck, as I did not wish to draw attention to myself as different from any of the crew. A man discovers much losing himself among his fellows.
What I took for discipline among diverse crewmen became known to me as fear so deep no man spoke of it. I had never before known sailors of any sort to shy away from complaining of their superiors. I saw it on their faces, and on their backs as well, the scars and stripes of many voyages. The manner of brute that inflicted upon them the order of the scourge, I did not inquire. I kept my head down, my eyes open.
A squat dog on board, a stout, black creature who had it in for me, followed my every movement. I came to know his name as Skipper, though I never saw his better side. As to who owned him, I could not say. He never showed a preference for any man, and I at last came to a conclusion he belonged to the ship, or the ship belonged to him.
The first mate was an Argentinian I might have called taciturn, like so many of his countrymen, had he not projected an air of cruelty so pervasive as to be a force of weather, like rain or storm. Sailors on shore referred to him as Guapo, which I would have taken as derisive on any other ship. It is possible that a woman had once called him handsome, but that year passed decades earlier.
The silence of the ship unnerved me, each man performing his role without either orders or objections. Even Skipper held his mouth shut at all times, several snaggled teeth protruding from his black lips. The number of the crew I placed at twenty-six, well below any barque on which I had sailed, each man responsible for a proportionately larger number of tasks, giving an aspect not so much of nimbleness as friskiness—despite the fact several of them had bid farewell to an arm or leg at some point in their bleak existence.
The only one among them that paid any attention to the hook I wore as left hand had the look of someone considering how such an apparatus might supply his own missing appendage. As a precaution, I wrapped and kept it tucked into my side in my bunk throughout each night. I found the hook useful keeping curious strangers at bay, unless their own depravity far exceeded my own.
Add to this mystery that The Draak had not actually come into port. Myself and two others, both swabbies, had been carried a distance from shore in a rough-hewn dinghy manned by a single, if not singular, burly half-man whose flesh was not visible through the mass of curly black hair that covered not only his massive chin but his entire torso below his neck. He pawed at the air with a long oar as we took each wave, as if the dinghy might leave the sea and break into flight, giving not so much as a glance when the same oar bounced off of and then plunged into the waves—without any expression of surprise or dismay from the boatman.
Dizzy as I was, on being forced to leap into rope netting at the side of the ship, I climbed like a monkey in my scramble to the deck, where I was met by none other than this Skipper, who led me below ship to a solitary bunk, isolated from all others, and left me there without further instruction and without a backward glance. From that moment, I did not hear a human voice until the First Mate pointed at one of our number, garbed in a ragged loincloth and a pastiche of tattoo, smeared with the grime of his labors and lying on the deck with eyes half-open, and he groaned.
In my log, I note this as the twelfth day of my voyage on The Draak.
So exhausted was he, he could barely stand, but rise he did under the gaze of the Mate, and make his way up to the bridge as we all attempted not to pause at our own stations, engaged in our own labors, whereupon he entered the enclosure or cabin, completely blocked to sunlight, from which directly we heard a scream I could scarcely believe could have been mustered by the half-dead sailor, though I acknowledge it must have, following which, I never saw this seaman again, above or below decks. I watched for but failed to witness a burial at sea.
At this point, I gauged our number to have fallen to 23. One man had perilously dropped from the crow’s nest, hit the gunwale, and bounced into the sea in a spray of his own materials, another slipped over the side and joined the waves, whereupon he was devoured by the sharks, which, previously, I had taken for dolphins riding the bubble and surge of our wake. I decided to take to the sea myself at an auspicious moment with land in sight that never came.
I saw things in the sea I cannot explain, either as hallucination or reality. My fifteenth day at sea, a gigantic octopus or squid—I did not know which—occupied the bow of the ship and had to be sliced away limb by limb, through repeated strokes of our machetes. On the twenty-first, I saw the loops of a green serpent where they rose on the water, the great head exposed at intervals when the sea rushed away from what I hesitate to call its face, its fearsome eyes, the raised snout and dagger-like teeth. This latter took another man, snatching him off the bow and taking him under, to my own great relief, as I hoped never to see them again, either man or beast.
Past this sighting of the serpent, the disappearance of the crew continued apace, one taken by the hideous mermen, two more directed to the bridge, whereupon an horrific shriek ensued, and the man was never seen again, I venture to speculate, in this world. I knew by that time, as who would not, that the ship and crew had been damned to its fate through some mortal sin on the part of its invisible Captain or, perhaps, by each member of the crew in their own path to hell, or both. For my part, I could not help but dwell on my wrong-doing, grievous errors, my slights to women and men even of my own family. Regret grew exponentially, and I saw my torment on the faces of each member of the crew, now that I knew it.
Finally, the day arrived on which the Mate drew up before me. An erect fellow was he, with the posture of a figurehead, straight and sturdy as the mizzen mast. On his face he bore the gaze of infinity, of absolute knowledge of my identity, under which I withered like the stricken fig tree under the curse of Christ. As I made my way to the bridge, I could not imagine what awaited me, yet was I glad to set eyes on the Captain and know him, and excoriate him for the beast I knew him to be from the appearance of his crew.
When the door opened to admit me, what awaited I could not have predicted. The finest man I had seen sat at an overly large, roll-top desk, equipped with quill and parchment, whereupon he wrote with great intent, never looking up until he filled the page and set his seal to it in wax. I must call the look he set on me nothing less than caring, filled with his own concern for my well- being. As I am a somewhat tall man, he had to look up at me for a while, but at last he stood, and I found myself looking up at him.
When he turned to look behind, I saw what, to my curiosity, looked like nothing so much as an enormous bottle, the barrel wide enough that a man could live inside it, and yet the neck or mouth of the bottle so narrow as to deny egress to any but the eels of the sea. As he brought his gaze back to my face, he offered the parchment on which he had written my actual name, not any of those I had affected in years of travel. Though shocked by this alone, I was astonished by the words I read beneath, in his flowing hand, that decreed I was to be stowed inside this bottle and set out to sea on my own.
He must have seen the incredulity on my visage. When I looked once more at the bottle, I could only wonder how he proposed inserting my languishing body through a passage as narrow as my wrist. Our eyes fixed on each other, and I understood he could do whatsoever he wished, and if he wished me inside that bottle—this I believed as surely as the sea around me—I would come to reside within the confines of the bottle, at which point, and frankly against my will, a scream tore from my innards of which I never would have dreamed myself capable at that or any other time in my sordid life.
As I peered out through the glass, seated at the small table I had been allowed, with quill and parchment before me and scant provisions in a chest at my feet, a port opened at the rear of the cabin and from thence I slid out through dark passageways into the sea far at the trail of the ship. If I make an educated guess, none of my shipmates witnessed my fate, or the firmness with which the cork was secured by our Captain at the lip. Though it has held, I am not quite certain how long it will keep the sea from encroaching upon me, or why I am possessed of sufficient air to breathe or water to drink.
These are not the concerns with which I occupy my mind, of course, as there is nothing I can do to augment my stores. So, as long as provisions hold, so long as my ink does not run dry, I will continue my solitary work, taking comfort in the knowledge I am a message the Captain has sealed in a bottle; only I can carry this story into the world, if the world should ever take notice of my passing in the night. ✦