by Phil Geusz
SIRS— June 6, 1821
I forward to you with the greatest reservations the enclosed writings of a certain Carey Moore, which purports to be an account of the loss of a missing brigantine out of Boston. While the fantastic ravings of this poor lunatic can hardly be taken seriously, the letter was indeed found in what appeared to be a Boston-made ship's boat, and was written in the American style. Therefore, I have made the decision to include this find in the current dispatch home. May you find more wisdom in understanding it than I have been able to muster.
Your Obed't Servant
Capt. Horatio Pipeman
For the love of God!
Stranger, I know ye not. But in the name of Jesus hearken unto my plea, and read of the fate of my shipmates and I! For we know not what sin we committed, or commandment we broke. Yet truly, we were delivered to the Pit of Satan himself.
Our fair ship, the "Mark van Sciver", was a two-masted brigantine in fine shape. Veteran of two cruises to the coast of Spanish California, she was a hearty and fast vessel, if a bit clumsy in light airs. And her crew was a salty lot, all of us shipped on shares and well suited to each other's company. We were loaded with tobacco and whiskey, and planned to make our return voyage laden with the hides such as we had dealt in before. All in all, we expected a two-year voyage and a profitable though not spectacular payoff. The only real danger expected was from the sea herself, especially the peril of rounding the horn. Most of the crew had done it before, some like the Captain several times. But I was Ship's Boy, and looked forward to the world's most difficult passage with eagerness and excitement. Little was I to know what else this trip held in store...
The winds were fair on our Southern leg, and the crew settled well into ship's routine like the old hands they were. Captain Thomas, who had taken me in after the death of my parents from smallpox, took me aside and instructed me in the rudiments of navigation while the crewmen taught me seamanship and how to be a good shipmate. It was Captain Thomas's hope that after such a trip I might have the makings of an officer, and that perhaps I could serve under him in the future. Meanwhile, Mrs. Thomas looked out after me like she might one of her own, and saw to it that I kept up my lessons in Bible study. It was a happy trip for me, an adventure that would have taken my mind off the passing of my family had it been given a chance. One that would have given me a trade, and the Thomas's a partial substitute for their own dead son Ewell, killed on the Great Lakes under Commodore Perry.
A trip that could have ended in happiness and healing, instead of death and misery. And worse-than-death.
There were only two memorable happenings for me prior to our attempt to round the Horn. One was our Line-crossing party. Captain Thomas himself played King Neptune at the traditional event, while I was scrubbed and forced to eat vile things and mocked terribly by my friends as the price of my admission to Neptune's realm. The other was just before the rounding itself, when one morning we encountered what Captain Thomas said was the largest iceberg he'd ever seen.
Now, Captain Thomas was a kind and generous Captain, not at all like some I've heard tales of. And fresh water is always short aboard ship. We'd been sailing for several weeks through the tropics, and all of us continually felt a little thirst. We weren't suffering, mind you. But the thought of a good long iced drink, well...
I was allowed to pull an oar on the ship's boat, and other than catching a couple crabs and upsetting the stroke of my fellow boatmen I did a man's work, too. The Captain found us a safe approach, and we men climbed up the slippery slope and hacked away until we got below the briny crust to the good sweet water below. Then we mined great chunks, so that our boat was almost awash as we made the hard pull back to our good ship.
Captain Thomas declared it a "make and mend" day, giving our crew a time of rest before the coming trial, and issued a double spirit ration. Great tales were swapped on the maindeck as we made Southing under easy sail. Jones told his yarn about raiding the English on the USS Enterprise, while his mate Wells spoke of surviving the defeat of the USS Argus. And then, by popular demand, old First Mate Bush told of the greatest battle any of us had ever seen, when he had served the English Crown at the Nile. Once again, he regaled us with the crash of cannon as whole fleets fired broadsides, cannon smoke so thick and dense that it took minutes to clear, and the mighty, mighty explosion of the world's largest warship, the Frenchman L'Oriente. Bush had been wounded by debris from the famous blast; an old statue that had hit him in the head at it fell from its dizzying height. When he recovered, a crewmate gave it to him as a keepsake, and it had been with him ever since.
I had never heard that part before. Could I see it, I asked?
He had smiled, well lubricated by Kentucky's finest export, and brought it up from belowdecks for me. "Just a little statue", he explained modestly. "Not gold or anything valuable, like."
I examined it carefully. It was of a dog-headed person, sort of. "What's it mean?" I asked.
"It means I 'ad me a bloody sore noggin!" he said uproariously, and all the men laughed as I blushed. I was only 13, and it seemed I was always being reminded of it...
About then, Mrs. Thomas (who worked as cook for our little crew) called me to the mess to help her with some special task. I hated being called away from the men at first, but then Mrs. Thomas put a cup of iced lemonade in my hand. What a rare delight! Only the richest men of Boston enjoyed iced drinks in the heat...
There was a price of course, though one I gladly paid. With a marlin-spike I was put to work cracking more ice into cup-sized pieces for the rest of the crew. This went quickly at first, until I hit something hard.
Indeed it was. What an extraordinary thing! How had a rock found its way into a block of ice at sea? There are so many mysteries still in the world! When the rest of the crew came for their share, I passed it around. It was an ordinary sort of stone, reddish and a bit melted looking. Jones noticed that it was almost the color and shape of Bush's little statue.
"Right!" Bush responded. "Two rocks on the whole bloody ship, and they're just alike! Oops, sorry about the bad word, Ma'am."
Mrs. Thomas smiled, and everyone relaxed. No one wanted her to be mad.
"You know," Bush continued, "I used to do a bit of scrimshaw. Can I have that stone, Carey? I've a mind to see if I can carve it."
"Certainly," I replied. I had no use for it, after all.
The next day, the storms began.
A sailor needs no descriptions of the storms of Cape Horn, so I won't even try. Suffice it to say that there was wind, and there was more wind, and then there were gales and vortexes and sheer hurricane blasts. "Sciver" was tight, yet all of us found constant employment at the pumps as we beat relentlessly to windward in the teeth of all the bad weather in the world. It being my first time, I'd have been frightened to death without the strength of the crew and my solid, sure belief in my Captain and my God. It was at the height of the worst storm, waves seemingly running as high as the mainmast, that it began.
Bush dropped his speaking trumpet, and began to howl in agony.
We got the suffering sailor below right away, of course, Mrs. Thomas establishing him in the galley. Like most merchant sailors, we were a pretty tight lot regardless of rank (the Captain excepted, of course!) and lots of us wanted to visit when the weather allowed us a few minutes below. But whatever the sickness was, it was very bad because Mrs. Thomas kept us cleared out, and all we could judge by were our mate's screams through the hatchways...
Screams that sometimes sounded inhuman.
Finally, Mrs. Thomas sent for me, and I went below at a run. She met me outside the sickroom, and gave very strict instructions. I was to get the Captain, get him now, and brook no delay.
I had never seen her so serious. "Yes'm!" I said, and performed my mission.
He came immediately of course—even Captains learn that they are no longer in full command after marriage, I've been told. She met us outside again, and had me wait there while her husband visited the howling sick man. Presently he emerged, white-faced, and stood a moment outside the galley door.
Even I could read the naked horror on his features.
"Sir?" I asked.
But before he could reply, he was cut off by a new fit of howling, a fit that was more demonic than anything that had gone before.
The Captain's eyes closed, and he shuddered as he collapsed against the bulkhead. I rushed over and grasped his arm.
He was feverish, as bad as Bush had been...
I tried to rouse him, but my attempts only sufficed to bring Mrs. Thomas to my aid. Weeping, she had me haul her husband into the improvised hospital, using the ship's motion to help lift him onto the tabletop that would become his sickbed. Then, I discreetly passed the word to our second officer, a man named Martinez, that I thought he was in command.
I didn't tell him that I had seen the shape under Bush's sheets, and that it was no longer that of a man...
The storms remained our main enemy, of course. With the sea raging like a mad thing all around you and the wind in your face clawing like a demon there's not much time to think about things like sickness and howling and who's Captain. Even when Bush died, Mrs. Thomas managed to wrap him up so well that no one but me could tell what was wrong when we put him over the side. The Captain being ill, there was no objection to Mrs. Thomas reading the service in his stead during a little lull when the wind backed from a scream to a mere howl.
So no one was there when the Captain died, quietly and alone.
Martinez had never relished command. He was a weak leader, and knew it. His primary function had been to serve as a translator in California, and his skills were more in business dealings than in ship handling, though he was a passable navigator. He got us out of the Straits, though, and into the wide Pacific.
While two more crewmen sickened.
Martinez had us hoist the "yellow Q", international code for a plague ship. No crew is ever happy as long as that pennon flies, and the men of the "Sciver" were no exception. Tensions ran high as former lifelong friends fought and bickered, while Martinez struggled to maintain discipline. Our next burial was the result of a knife-fight, not the Fever...
Things got worse even after the two fever victims recovered. By then seven others were sick, and the still-grieving Mrs. Thomas had been forced to ask for my full-time help as an assistant. These seven beget four more, and even as two of the seven died one of the four began howling and screaming, much like Bush...
Almost half the crew was sick of a strange, often deadly disease, and the new Captain was a weak leader. Add to that mindless shouts of pain from belowdecks all day and all night and, well...
It was done in a very respectful way. Jones, oldest of the men, came forward very politely to Captain Martinez and asked him to make for the nearest port. Martinez replied that he was bound not to do so by the ship's owners, and that even if he did the vessel would be quarantined until the Fever ran its course anyway. So the men wore ship without orders, lowered the yellow pennon and asked Martinez to please stay in his cabin. A way would be found to work things out if he cooperated...
Thus goes mutiny among old shipmates.
Mrs. Thomas and I were too busy to care. The sick were producing vast quantities of the most disgusting substances imaginable, and we held hands and prayed over the victims every spare moment, hoping God could hear us over the intermittent shouts of the raving crewman. By this time, Mrs. Thomas had long since despaired of keeping anything from me, and I watched in utter fascination as the skin of the unfortunate soul seemed to thicken, his neck to elongate, and his arms and legs to shorten. It was an evil sight—we prayed over him often, wondering what his special sin was among the rest our offenses.
We were praying thus when finally, Mrs. Thomas collapsed over the sick man.
She too was burning with the Fever...
I had been trying to act the part of a man, and succeeded up until then, I suppose. But losing Mrs. Thomas frightened me beyond all reason, beyond all pretensions of manhood. I'm afraid that I was a boy again as I burst out of the reeking galley to find Jones walking the quarterdeck, and sobbingly told him what had happened. Immediately he came below with me, to view the spectacle of our beloved lady lying collapsed over a body that was no longer human.
In my grief and fear, I had forgotten that not everyone knew...
Immediately, Jones became extremely agitated. He had been drinking the cargo, as had the rest of the crew since Martinez had been removed from command, and was somewhat incapacitated. Excitedly he returned to the deck, and called all hands one by one to visit the galley where I solemnly showed them their hairless, transforming shipmate. Each of them reacted strongly in their own way, but all the varied methods seemed to involve heavy drinking.
That night, a ship's council was held. Even Martinez was invited, after being shown the horrid thing in the galley and given strong drink afterwards. And indeed it was he who offered the solution.
"Amigos mio," he began, then restarted, "My old friends. Much that is terrible has happened on this voyage. We are sailors. We are used to the idea of death by drowning, or accident, or even loathsome disease. But what lies below decks, what was once our friend and shipmate... it is the work of the Devil!"
The crew murmured its agreement.
"In Spain, my old country, we had priests who dealt with this sort of thing often. Witches, Jews, devil-worshipers. None of these special priests are here, regrettably. However, I do know one thing about their methods..."
You could have cut the silence with a knife. Finally, Jones spoke. "Tell us."
"Fire is the key. We must burn the evil."
There was a lot of argument after that. But no other plan emerged.
Thus it came to pass that in the gathering darkness, the badly frightened crew of the "Mark van Sciver" prepared to burn one of their own messmates alive...
Preparations were done by dawn. The inert body of the wretched victim, now much larger than it had ever been before the demons came upon it, was hauled out into the morning half-light and deposited on deck. A raft had been prepared for the holocaust—you can't have a big fire safely on a wooden ship—and with care and Bible readings the former seaman was carefully lashed into place among the kindling. He moaned a bit from time to time, the rumbling being far too deep and profound to have emerged from a Son of Adam, but the thing only responded feebly to the tightening of the ropes. At the last minute I added the statue that had meant so much to Bush, the first victim, and his partially completed duplicate carving. Who knew where the evil had come from? A whip was reeved and the capstan turned in unusual silence as the men heaved their mate and his raft over the side. Below, two men waited in the ship's boat with flint and tinder.
Then, with a flourish the deed was done. In the boat tinder came to life, and a tiny fire was nurtured. This was transferred to the raft, whose tarry boards and smeared lard accepted the gift of flame eagerly. Jones read loudly a verse from Revelations about the Beast while the smoke blossomed forth and the flames grew in intensity. A column of blackness began to form, evil dark smoke that we all hoped would carry away the sickness-demon so that the rest of us could live...
It was about then that Seaman Abel Finn awoke, and screamed his agony to the world.
The sound was horrible, as pain wracked the inhuman creature. Jones reminded us that it was a demon we heard dying, not a human, so we were able to harden our hearts and stay firm. But still it was difficult—people are not meant to just stand by and watch when another living thing is in agony.
But we can manage it.
Then the demon transformed itself further yet, still screaming at its tormentors. It grew suddenly and hugely, with frightening speed. The raft was crushed, its tough timbers broken asunder like toys. The neck lengthened hugely, the body flattened, the arms and legs became paddle-like fins. A tail as long as the "Sciver" emerged, and teeth like cutlasses grew into the evilly grinning mouth.
The demon had been far more powerful than we knew. It had become a sea monster. The stuff of legends...
Enraged, it attacked mercilessly, plucking the two poor souls from the ship's boat first and consuming them in a single bite. Then, it turned its attention to the "Sciver" herself, beating our vessel into a wreck with tail and clublike head. Musketry served only to enrage the beast further, and presently, inevitably, we sank.
By the grace of God I made it to the still-floating boat, where by laying quietly I managed to escape notice and prolong my miserable existence a few more wretched hours. I live only to write this warning, using the paper left over from lighting the raft. When it is done, I will wrap it as best I can and pray that it comes again to the notice of humanity, so that our fates may be known. Then, there being absolutely no hope for me, I will drown myself.
For the evil must already be in me. I have a fever, you see. And I prefer a sailor's death to possession by a demon from within...
Copyright 1998 by Phil Geusz. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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