A good rest was all I needed. Now with my tired old back stretched out, I can tell another tale for you. It’s a tale I’ll need vigour for. Vigour and strength are required because of my obligation to punch anyone who calls me a liar, or questions the true events of this story – doesn’t matter who speaks out, a pirate, a prince, a pauper or a poet – be it man, woman, or child – I’ll wallop them. Especially the children! They’ll need to hear and learn from the journey of the Great Gnesher – that is if they want a chance at surviving the jaws of this vicious life which we have all been involuntarily thrown into.
The strange adventures of the Great Gnesher and her fearsome crew have been argued about for the past two decades, from sailor inns to princely halls across the globe. I am sure many a fist fight has been fought over the facts and events of her journey, I am sure because many of them I have started myself. Decidedly, I am getting long in the tooth and my fists merely bruise fools rather than break off their jaws. It is time to set down what I saw as a crew member during my time on the Gnesher. Hopefully, when I pass onto the next life there is room at the Great Feast for a writer – because I fight today with pen and paper rather than sword and axe.
You know how I was found by the Great Gnesher, in few words: a mess. “Iceberg!” some one shouted. A few moments later they yanked me up with ropes, and like a fish after a fierce battle with the line, I fell limp on the deck. With my remaining strength, I looked up to see a strange scene. Grubby faces gawked at me as if I were a merman. And I must have been a strange sight indeed, a small shivering thing fished from an iceberg who held a puffin. A blonde boy approached and poured some water into my mouth. I spluttered unable to keep it down.
A nasal voice cut through the clamour, “Eisenberg!? How did that bastard get on board? Eisenberg, you better have my duobloons or else I am going to-…”
I could tell he had authority by the manner he pushed through the crowd.
“Where… who…?” he pointed at me.
The boy who gave me water spoke up, “Iceberg, sir” and pointed starboard.
The thin man looked around to see if anyone dared let out a chuckle about the misunderstanding, no one did.
He bent down and looked at me with beady eyes, “Well, what do we have here…”
With a swift movement, he had stolen the puffin from my arms.
“Don’t worry friend, I’ll take care of your bird,” he inspected the bird like a fine piece of jewellery and then looked to the boy, “Kidd! Put him below deck, his own room. I don’t want him infecting anyone if he is sick.”
The boy called Kidd helped me to my feet and I asked him in a rasping whisper, “Is that the captain…?”
He shook his head – but before he could elaborate a booming voice shouted from the cabin, “Why have-…” there was a deep breath,”…-we stopped!?”
I knew the voice belonged to the captain as the thin man’s posture changed from proud to cowardly in an instant, “Oh nothing, nothing sir, just a little event of interest. I have a present for you, you’ll love this.”
I looked to the cabin but could only see the silhouette of the man who had shouted. He was clearly obese, his body and head were egg shaped, and his limbs erected from his torso like protruding bratwurst from a sausage-stuffer. One ear seemed inflated or swelled up which I assumed was because of the bizarre looking parrot that dug its claws into his shoulder and nibbled at his ear with its sharp beak.
“That’s the captain,” Kidd whispered with a touch of fear in his voice.
The captain swiped lazily at the bird which was attempting to nip of a chunk of meat from his earlobe, “No more detours-” he took another deep breath, “- or you’ll be on the rack, Cohen!”
I saw the thin man scurry to the cabin with the puffin as I was led under the deck.
The next few days passed in a fever. I felt as if I had melted away with the iceberg I arrived on and the hammock I was strung up in was a manger, I was a babe once again. The delusion that I had been reborn or reincarnated wasn’t much of an error, the day I was rescued was the start of a new life for a young Leif Erickson.
Compared to the icy bed I had floated on, this was heaven, an oaken cocoon that oozed comfort. I spent my days here illuminated by soft lantern light, my hammock rocking with the gentle swaying of the ship.
Apart from reading, I entertained myself by writing my thoughts in this old faded encyclopedia that are you are reading – another weapon against boredom were stories told by my carer, the young lad William Kidd. He was barely older than me, on the brink of becoming a man, sprouting a thin blonde moustache that could only be seen in candlelight. Kidd told me stories of the crew and the places they had travelled.
I listened passively, not having the energy to ask many questions.
“Today the Captain came out of his cabin for once, his parrot cawed and screeched at anybody nearby. Everybody ducked their heads thinking they would get the lash… but he had only ventured out to grab a leg of turkey from the kitchen…” Kidd was a natural born storyteller and maybe that made him a natural born leader. He knew exactly who he was, where he came from, and where he was going – and he could inspire the same confidence in others.
“Tahiti was heaven on Earth, the land of milk and honey, no miserable snow and no dreary rain. I mean… no offence to Iceland Leif…”
“No offence taken, it only snows 10 months of the year anyway.”
Remembering those times make me laugh, but not for long, the memory is tinged with what was to come. Kidd could never stay for long he had to work up on the high ropes for long hours, which made me even more appreciative of his care for my health.
It was a peaceful and comfortable experience in that soft womb. As I wrote in my makeshift diary I found it wasn’t completely worn away, it appeared to be an encyclopedia or reference book on birds. As I explored its pages I began to believe that it may have been intentionally vandalised and not merely damaged by sun, salt, and sea. Be the judge of it yourself.
THE PARROT (ii)
Surfacing from my escapism, I again felt guilty in momentarily forgetting about my mother, my father, and of course the puffin. The puffin was being kept by Cohen, the First Mate. I met him only briefly while recovering — just from seeing the way his spindly fingers reached around my door I knew what sort of man he was.
“I am taking care of your little birdie, he is too tired to come see you though…” he spoke lazily, letting his bottom lip droop down. He was a lazy liar too, every time he lied he simply pointed his droopy eyes at the wall behind me, unable to make the sheer effort to make eye contact.
“Thanks,” was all I could mutter, feeling greasy having just talked to him.
“And don’t get too comfortable,” he prodded me in the chest with a bony finger that he used to comb back his greased black hair, “You’ll be earning your keep on the high ropes soon enough. I hope you’re not afraid of heights!”
He left laughing with such a lack of enthusiasm that he didn’t seem to even convince himself. Cohen was the type of man that thinks he’s clever for taking advantage of the sick and helpless, which made me concerned for the puffin. I needed a plan to get back the bird.
However, that wasn’t Cohen’s only sin to speak of, Kidd told me many tales of his singular brand of functional insanity — which I have never witnessed in another man before or since. I won’t be able to retell it as well as Kidd did so I hope you won’t mind me using his words.
Cohen was a supposedly a Jewish pirate turned privateer. Cohen often sailed them into dangerous seas, saying that the profits were more important. Typical of a Jew you might be saying, or more likely, “You anti-Semite Leif!” when really it was Cohen himself who was the anti-Semite. It was obvious to all that met him that he was gentile.
He constantly perpetrated his Jew disguise in an exaggerated tone, always shouting about profit margins and hot new bargains. Yahweh have mercy on you if you ever questioned his supposed heritage.
After a particular racist performance one poor sailor, who actually was Jewish, finally took issue with it.
“You have the nose of an Italian,” he muttered under his breath. Rage and a touch of fear sprang from Cohen’s eyes as he swung around.
“This nose! This one planted on my face! I didn’t choose it boy, just as I didn’t choose to wear this. I was chosen!” He ripped his homemade kippah off his head and shoved it in his accuser. Cohen had taken a literal meaning of the term skullcap and had adorned it with the recognisable pirate skull and crossbones.
“You mean to say that my grandfather and 200,000 of my people were expelled from Spain because they had Italian noses!”
“Listen, I know you think it’s important for a pirate to have some sort of disfigurement, you know Captain Ahab had the peg leg, Hook had the — you get the idea. I think you need to just rethink your public image a little, we like you for who you arrr-”
His reply was cut short by a fatal, effortless and very economical slit across the boy’s jugular vein. “Schmuck,” he muttered, wiping his bloody dagger on a handkerchief. Cohen was cheap even when it came to killing.
The criticism had struck a nerve obviously. The genuine Jewish sailor was not able to elaborate due to the fountain of blood pouring out of his trachea. Rumours spread afterwards that Cohen chose his false religion due to his lacking manhood, which he saw as comparable to the ‘disfigurement’ that was common among male Jews. Perhaps this was the purpose behind the hasidic hoax Cohen performed, to cover up his small member that was in no way caused by a Rabbi’s blade – who knows? In any case, the man had issues.
Kidd’s stories had me terrified one moment, and then almost laughing myself out of my hammock the next. I tried asking him about the captain and his parrot but he got that look of fear in his eyes and simply told me he didn’t know any, except that the parrot had been onboard the Gnesher far longer than any of them had been.
This ideal existence didn’t last for long. The meals came less often, the plates came less full. I complained to Kidd but he seemed to be losing weight as well. My health began to fail and I lost the progress I made – it was a slippery slope back to the realm of illness and delirium. In another effort of escapism, I began reading the bird encyclopedia again. Though now it was becoming even more confusing whether it was damaged, vandalised, or warped by my delirious mind – words disappeared, swapped, transformed when I blinked. Somehow I managed to write down one entry that stayed static long enough for me to copy down.
THE PARROT (iii)
Eventually, I lost the energy to read. All I could think of was food. My eyes could barely focus on the words while I fell into a half dream state.
Puffins and feathers colliding, collecting into a pool fractals which I dived through like a liquid pane of glass. With a blink I was back on land, standing on the mountain that shadowed my home. A shout echoed from behind me, I turned to see my mother pointing behind me. Again I turned and saw the Gnasher in the distance crashing through sandbanks and paddocks – riding a wave of blood, bone and screaming souls – sailing upon the land as swiftly as on the sea. The Gnasher, a beautiful ship corrupted by some unseen evil, rumbled behind me with its bow cracked into a mouth. Its maw was lined by splintered wooden teeth but its insides were flesh. Someone screamed in the distance and I was consumed, sliding down its gullet till I came to rest in a warm pool housed by a cathedral of bone, its arched ribs were slippery and impossible to climb. My skin felt sticky and then gelatinous, dripping off my body like melted butter leaving my glistening muscles naked underneath. I screamed but the only answer was a breathless laughter. An obese man’s silhouette stood in the distance, he held a lantern and watched me with glee and a parrot cawed and scratched at his face which the man took with pleasure as he laughed. He was the source of the corruption on this ship, I was certain. He laughed while I screamed till my mouth bubbled away though my jaw bone – which flapped away through the bloody stew of my face. I had no mouth, yet I screamed on- I was nothing at all but pain and human debris, yet the agony continued, red hot pain pouring down my raw nerves which floated like tattered string in the syrup of my remains.
I woke startled and swung my fist at the darkness.
The punch connected with something that groaned and fell down to the floor.
“Who arr ya?” I spurt out, still half asleep.
“God’s blood! It’s Kidd, put down those bloody weapons,” he grabbed my shoulder and from the warmth of his hand, I knew he was not a ghoul. I apologised and then he explained why he was sneaking around during the graveyard shift.
“I brought you some food I stole from under the quartermaster’s nose.” He handed me several loafs of bread and some foul smelling cheese.
“They’ve got all the stockpile right under their noses, lucky for you I don’t smell as bad as the rest,” he grinned.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said shoving a handful of bread into my mouth.
“Just don’t punch me next time. And don’t worry about it, there’s plenty more where that came from. ”
“Plenty more? Why are we being starved then?”
The boards above us creaked.
“I’ve got to go, we’ll talk later.”
He disappeared in silence like a shadow diving into an inkwell.
I ate my fill of the bread and that stinking cheese (I was hungry enough to eat the paper out of my books at that point) and hid the rest behind some books. With my belly full, I got some well-needed sleep. But it didn’t last long, I woke up again to the sound of boards creaking above. The footsteps of a very heavy set man paced up and down the deck while incoherent shouting went on.
“WHERE? You bastard— where the devil—-” was all I could pick out of the muffled argument among some curses that are too obscene to repeat.
More shouting echoed down to my cabin and I clung to the hammock. Was it a mutiny? Was it Davy Jones taking his tax; collecting the souls of sinful sailors as they slept? I knew not until I saw the planks directly above me bend under the weight of the beast. The hairs on my neck stood up. The shape froze and began sniffing, softly at first, and then had its nose right on the floor so that I could see its horrid nostrils through the cracks of the floor. The sniffing stopped, beads of sweat rolled down my face and rested on the tip of my nose. Paralysis clung to the air and even the ship seemed to stop swaying, the endless moment ceased with a single word that he grunted through the ceiling, “Food!”
I heard footsteps running down the stairs, and my door burst forth to a more frightening figure I could have imagined. There stood the silhouette of the man from my dreams. He stepped out of the veil, and then let out the same breathless chuckle I had heard before and pointed one chubby finger at me,“Gotcha.” He ran as fast as his short legs could carry him. It looked almost comical until he was a few feet away and a delayed thought arrived: this man was going to hurt me. For the first time I got a good look at his parrot, it was disfigured and featherless, a poor tortured thing. We didn’t talk as he looked around the cabin. I saw only a flash of his face, that first pointed toward my hastily hidden food which he found with a single sniff of his pig like nose and then his fearsome gaze pointed at me. I cowered in my hammock but he wrenched up by the front of my shirt. His mouth spread into a toothy smile, it did not put me at ease as his eyes still held their rage and intensity.
“You think I am going to kill you,” the captain said, who shook his head and his eyes went soft suddenly, “No, no, no, I am not even going to hurt you. No sir, no sir, I am not even going to hurt you.” He put me down for a second, “It’s alright, it’s fineee.”
He turned away, and the parrot began to chew on his ear again, but at this distance I could also hear that it was whispering. The captain mumbled, “No, No, I won’t,” the parrot squawked and I swear I heard a woman’s voice in the distance, the captain exploded, “- he’s just a boy!”
The captain swung his body around to face me and I saw that he was weeping. Not weeping as a man does before a breathtaking view or a great painting, and not weeping as a man griefs – but weeping as a child, tears and mucus dripping off his flushed face.
“Oh, I am sorry… I am so sorry, my boy,” the first punch hit the side of my face and it flipped me out of the hammock.
“SORRY!” he screamed and kicked me in the stomach.
The kick winded me, tried to crawl away but my body was involuntarily folded up like a dying insect. He dragged me out of the room by my legs, squealing and spluttering apologies as he kicked me in the head over and over again.
“PLEASE GOD! PLEASE FORGIVE ME!” he screamed as he dragged me up the steps to the deck all while wiping his disgusting nose. I struggled and managed to get my foot free but another kick hit me in the jaw and something hard went skittering across the deck. The pain was so unbearable I felt that I was going to be ill even though I was barely conscious.
I’m sure a lot of you have been in fights (every person has a tilt to violence though some roll with the tide faster than others) and have received a bruise or two. A scuffle with a sibling or friend is a fine thing. But to be really beaten is something different, to be beaten as life truly beats you is to accept a darkness in yourself as I did then. There is an acceptance of death in that hole dug by blows to the head and body, the world becomes a grave as your vision sinks behind folds of swollen flesh – the body turns from a temple to a labyrinth of pain, and you run and run till you sit down. Yes, eventually you sit down, I don’t care how tough you believe you are, you will give up and accept that this is how you die, to the fists of a large man frothing at the mouth. And if by a strange mercy you survive, then know the beating is never truly over, on top of the nightmares, paranoia, and excessive flinching, you will have to accept that in that desperate moment you welcomed the end and saw it as a blessing. And sometimes survivors can’t find the strength to turn away their newly acquainted friend, Death.
By now the crew had stuck their heads out to watch the horror show. It was just a blur of faces to me. It was a strange time to think of it but I realised I had only ever been up on the deck in some sort of dazed or ill state. Perhaps the mind becomes contemplative and relaxed when it accepts that death is certain as I certainly did in that moment.
I contemplated the journey the trees had made to become this ship, tortured, carved and bent under steam till they became this ship – creaking and groaning as they watched my murder. Then out of the blur of faces came one I knew. He held an oar and I was wondering what type of wood it was made of – when he swung it in an overhead motion and smashed it over the Captain’s head, who went down with an enormous crash. Very hard wood, I surmised. The familiar looking man was Kidd, though his face looked older and angrier. A sailor stepped in to apprehend Kidd but the crowd turned on the loyalist and beat him to the ground, allowing Kidd to deliver a few more blows till the oar was splinters. Once the Captain had been knocked unconscious (he was bleeding as badly as I was), Kidd melted back into the crowd who evidently approved of his actions though they had been too scared to act themselves. I don’t know where the parrot had disappeared to during my rescue.
Cohen marched through the crowd as I had seen him do before.
“Who is the chutzpah behind all this- my god! Captain!” he rushed to the Captain’s aid.
He cradled the enormous man in his arms like a child.
“Who is responsible for this?” he said quietly not looking up. No one spoke up and then Cohen looked at me with murderous intent. He took one step towards me and then Kidd reappeared, “It was me, that boy had nothing to do with it.”
Cohen squinted and looked between us. I stood up, about to deny Kidd his heroic sacrifice, when Cohen barked at both of us.
“As the most senior officer I sentence you both to-…”
Everybody on board knew what his next word was going to be, and there was an immediate disturbance that rippled through the crowd. Cohen sensed it immediately and hesitated – he stood on thin ice with the Captain indisposed – mental images of a mutiny flashed before his eyes.
“- I sentence you both to a night on the rack.”
The crowd let out a collective sigh of relief… the uprising could wait.
The strongest among sailors dragged the Captain back to the Cabin while Kidd and I were tied to the rack – a metal grille attached to the mast. Somewhere overhead the parrot sang a cheerful note.
~ ~ ~
The sun set and as night rolled in so did a cold blustery wind. All we had was a moth eaten blanket to protect us from the cold and as if our fate were not cruel enough, a thick fog took the ship by surprise. After a day and a night on the rack (though you could hardly tell day from night because of the fog) we still had not seen the Captain.
The crew started to see strange thing in the fog, Kidd seemed to spot them before anyone else did, having nothing to do tied on the rack but stare at apparitions day in, day out. Men began to whisper to themselves. Paranoia set in, men saw indescribable monsters that flicked their tendrils out of the fog, as if beckoning them to become part of the fleshy mass that squeaked, flapped, and squirmed behind the curtain of fog. The lucky ones saw monsters. We were fed even less food that we had been getting before by our jailer, a Turk called Bilal, he spoke of seeing human shaped figures swimming under the ship the night before. He went to the edge to investigate and saw his wife and daughter, swimming a few metres below the surface, staring back at him – they pretended to drown, clutching at their throats and begging him to dive in and save them. When he shook his head the ghouls leered at him and changed form, his wife’s face became encrusted in barnacles, her body pale and bloated. Bilal stood and watched his daughter’s flesh rot before his eyes, her pearl white ribs became the home to eels that slithered in and out of her as they pleased.
It is a story a mad man would tell. But from the clarity with which he spoke and the steady gaze of his eyes, I knew he wasn’t insane – though perhaps he wished it. Still, the question of the Captain’s condition remained. The parrot was the only thing that passed in and out of the cabin. Though we never saw him, the parrot acted as a messenger as it sat on Cohen’s shoulder.
“Keep on scrubbing and bring me more food. No grumbling or I’ll give you even less,” the bird said with an almost perfect imitation of the Captain’s voice. Cohen was at the helm most day and the parrot was completely silent except for the Captain’s commands and occasionally whistling as Cohen turned the wheel one way or another.
During the fourth or fifth day on the rack the parrot flew into the cabin at sunrise (as it usually did) and I went to sleep. A few hours later, I woke to the sound of a woman laughing, the madness of the mists had spread to my mind but I saw no spectres or sea-beasts, the only disturbance that night occurred in reality’s domain. I pretended to be asleep and as I was becoming starting to actually go back to sleep the parrot flew out from the cabin and landed, not on Cohen’s shoulder, but on Kidd’s.
It was in the dead of night and only I witnessed it, Kidd was asleep and Cohen was preoccupied with something at the helm. The Parrot preened its wings and then flew on to its familiar roost on Cohen’s shoulder.
Cohen didn’t react to the bird and then he turned around with a blank expression as if in a dream, he shouted at Kidd and me to wake up (I was still pretending to sleep).
“I’ve finally thought of a punishment for you too, that is till we make it to port and you can become acquainted with the gallows.”
Kidd and I glanced briefly at each other and remained silent.
“You’ll be at the helm during the night and on the rack during the day,” Cohen said, but his words did not sound like his, it sounded like he was quoting someone else or playing a part in a pantomime. Without another word, he walked over and promptly freed us. I rubbed my sore wrists and ankles while I was pushed towards the helm.
“I am going below deck to count the gold, don’t take your eyes off that horizon…”
There was groan out in the mists that I swung my head to look at, and when I looked back Cohen had scurried away, just the tail end of his coat could be seen slinking around the doorway to the cabin.
Kidd began attending to several knots that needed retying, “Leif, I have a terrible feeling about this,” he finished retying the knots and stood at the wheel, “Cohen knows something or he has been warned to get under deck – he’s been touched by some omen, heard a whisper from a raven.”
“Or from a parrot…” I replied.
I couldn’t see that twisted ugly bird anywhere, yet I knew it was watching and listening.
“I’ll take the wheel and you go back to sleep.” A baby’s cry echoed out from the fog which we tried our best to ignore. Kidd talked faster, “Only one of us needs to keep their eyes open and steer. I’ll go first then I’ll wake you up for your shift.” I put up my arms to protest but he simply grinned and pointed to the blanket that still lay on the rack.
Kidd never woke me up and never took his eyes off the horizon. Even never looked away for a second, Cohen knew that Kidd would never put the crew at risk (or me) and so had trapped him to endure the horrors of the fog that inflicted his eyes with unforgettable horrors. Burnt into his retinas, a visual tinnitus, falling into graves within graces, an infinite hell that not even Dante could envisage. Kidd came to know the void and the void came to know him. It knew his disposition for anger and revenge and tempted him not with horror and gore – as all naturally all men hate these – but showed him great beauty. He saw endless green plains, a new Eden which he could build a future upon, stable ground to grow and also an escape from the ever turning and unforgiving ocean. The visions of heaven became so beautiful that they were difficult to look at, but still Kidd never took his eyes off the horizon. The visions became so beautiful they hurt, they were agony, he eyes watered but he still looked on – the beauty seared his eyes until – though only for a moment – it was so beautiful it hurt and he wanted to hurt it back. Damn it all, throw it all in the flames and let it burn, let it bleed; patience, virtue, love, and justice be cinder to me from this moment. It was a thought that lasted less than a second but it had broken him and he knew it, and he knew it with great sorrow. Kidd was changed from then and to this day he can give off an unsettling stare when it suits him, unleashing small frightening slice of the insanity he endured at the wheel. The visions ended and he naively thought his trial over when really his life has just begun. The ship sailed on, and it seemed impossible that he hadn’t found land, a ship or even another iceberg. He prayed silently for land, prayed for anything to happen to bring an end to this slow death. And it was only by his sheer mental fortitude and faith that the crew of Gnesher made it out of that labyrinth of constant decay. He could finally see the horizon and it was a blessing, he felt a surge of faith and it healed him. Kidd felt he could love the world once more but not like before, as a child.
Kidd shouted, “Land ho!” and the parrot descended landing on his shoulder, miraculously its feathers had begun growing back. An island lay before us its tropical waters looked fresh and inviting. Cohen emerged smiling with a few of the crew, his smile disappeared when he saw the parrot. He whistled to it, clicked his tongue grotesquely but it remained immobile. Now Kidd walked up to him and Cohen snidely commented, “The little whelp has found us an island, well done bo-” Kidd shot out a fist that caught him on the bottom of the chin, the collision made a sound like the crack of a whip as Cohen’s teeth slammed shut on his tongue. Blood poured out his mouth and Kidd looked to the crew and commanded with a voice of power, “This tyranny is done, though we are far from civilisation we will not become savage barbarians like this one,” he lifted Cohen bloodied head up by a tuft of hair so they could see his work and threw him to their feet, “We will not lose the traditions and principles that our forefathers died for because we are miles from home. The sea may be immense and unknowable but by the integrity of this hull we stay afloat. We choose honour or we choose death, each man decide in his heart what he truly desires.”
It was silent and then I moved to stand by Kidd’s side, then our jailer, Bilal; and one by one they came – then in a flood, no one wanting to be the last. Cohen crouched alone, though he made one attempt to convince the man closest to him by crawling to him. Cohen looked up at the man wishing for mercy, as many had done wished of him, and the man simply lifted his shirt to show his scarred chest. And so it was mutiny. Cohen dropped to the floor, defeated, and Kidd had him chained and led him like a dog on a leash.
“Watch my back,” Kidd said as we walked into the Captain’s cabin. It stunk, of rotten food which lay about the room, on the shelves, even some pieces of ham were stuck to the roof. I held my shirt over my mouth, as did Cohen. Kidd marched ahead unheeded by the stench and the parrot flew off ahead of us into the darkness. The cabin seemed impossibly large as we walked down the dark corridor, in cages were birds of every shape and size many of them dead or starving. I kept an eye out for my puffin.
Lantern after lantern illuminated piles of wasted food. Finally we arrived at a putrid throne of meat and mouldy bread, and a figure sat on it who we could hardly see, but his silhouette was unmistakable.
And there was no movement, but the shadow of a parrot.
And the parrot spoke, but the men did not.
“If I cannot eat anymore, why do I still hunger?”
And Kidd did not reply, but lit a match.
And the Captain was illuminated in light, but his glassy eyes did react and he was dead.
And he had been dead a long while, his face hung loosely off the skull like a mask, his body was ready to burst. I looked to Cohen who looked equally horrified, blood still dripping out his mouth. Who had been giving the orders this whole while? Kidd already knew the answer, it was an impossible one – but that was a realm Kidd was now well acquainted with.
The parrot was adorned in a passionate red plumage, it squawked and flew to Kidd. He grabbed it by the neck and it screeched in the voice of the Captain, “Let me free, boy!”
Kidd tightened his grip and the parrot let out the screech of a little girl which he cut short with a swift twist of his wrist.
The parrot’s feathers all feel out at once. And Kidd spoke to me, not as a friend, but as a Captain, “Clean this up and release all the birds that can fly.” He said all he needed to in that commanding tone, he was claiming the captaincy now and wasn’t about to play favourites with his friends. I didn’t mind, the news pleased me. I rushed about pulling the cages from their shelves out of the disgusting cabin. Their pupils grew massively as they were exposed to sunlight for the first time in months. After an anxious search, I found my puffin who recognised me instantly, its feathers had grown and looked healthier than the majority of the birds. Kidd sailed us closer to the island and gave me the signal. We opened the cages as fast as I could even as my body, still wounded from my beating, begged me to stop. The birds clamoured over each other to freedom.
Not since the rafters of the ark were opened have there been such an assorted clutter of birds reaching into the sky, perhaps that’s the rainbow Noah saw as a sign that God would never purge the Earth again. In any case, it was a rare privilege and to date the only truly noble deed I have accomplished in my life. I spotted the puffin who hesitated at the bannister – I thought it would glance back at me but it didn’t – and then flew off, I hope it made it back to colder waters. With all of those birds flying home, I thought of my own distant home which seemed like the memories of a different person – I would return one day, I promised myself, but not this day.
What remains left to tell? Kidd becomes Captain William Kidd, the youngest captain of the Great Gnesher and also her most capable. I became First Mate Erikson, and many more great adventures on the Gnesher were had though we were never as friendly as we had once been. In fact I had my suspicions about his change of character, though I never challenged him on them. The evidence was too small, the sound of a woman talking quietly as I walked past his cabin door, a flash of crimson when he gazed to the horizon. Enough gossip, he was good friend and a better captain.
~ ~ ~
Oh, I’ve remembered what remains left to tell; Cohen’s fate. Kidd had him thrown over board, a harsh sentence which I tried to convince him to rethink but there was too much bad blood within the crew, he had to die.
In the outset of retelling this story I asserted the truth of these events, this last story I cannot attest to, but I will tell it anyway. It is a dream and sometimes I think that dreams contain more truth than waking life will ever hold. Farewell for now friends, perhaps I’ll see you in the land of Nod or if you prefer; feel free to pursue that rare dreamless sleep that all men secretly covet.
The ship’s deck was especially quiet, Cohen watched the night sky. He studied the stars and made a note of their positions. No romantic notions entered his mind as he completed the task mechanically. What is special about them anyway? The stars have always been above, Cohen reasoned, and they always will be. They the Great Gnesher for many winters now, shipping their cargo from one side of the world to the other and for that Cohen was grateful. But, he mused, horoscopes were for fools and star-crossed lovers.
Cohen slept uneasily on the rack. His sleep was restless and full of nightmares. When Cohen woke early the next morning he immediately thought he was still dreaming as those predatory eyes emerged out of the darkness once again. It was Kidd.
“Ah here isth the Captain barely weaned off his mother’sth tit,” he said through a swollen tongue.
Kidd felt disgusted at his jovial nature – though it became clear from his jitters that it was the product of a complete nervous breakdown. Kidd unchained him and took him to the side of the ship Cohen sniffed back tears and then began to dance as the crew jeered at him. His pathetic jesting stopped when Cohen climbed up on the bannister and looked out towards the calm sea.
Unfortunately for Cohen, he had the gravest weakness a sailor can possess: knowing how to swim. Desperately he prayed for a storm, a typhoon or even a shark. Anything to bring a quick death. He prayed to all the gods he had worshipped. The gods were silent – only the gruff voice of a stranger answered with a shout from behind, “Mozel tof, you bastard!”
A kick to his behind sent him flying through the air in a somersault that seemed to last an eternity until he hit the almighty ocean with a splash. Disorientated, Cohen struggled in the inky darkness before rising to the surface. The ship was already moving too fast for him to grab his aged hands onto. It sailed off into the distance. The smaller it grew on the horizon, the smaller his hope became. “Maybe the crew will have a change of heart,” said Cohen to himself but could not help doubt creep into his voice. He pictured the men in his mind but could only imagine their bloody backs as he whipped them into discipline or the top of their heads as they looked to the ground, not one brave enough to meet his eyes – except for Kidd with his demon eyes that glowed like hot coals and who’s fiery gaze could melt steel. Kidd wouldn’t have a change of heart – even if he managed to float on these gentle waves for an eternity, Cohen knew that with certainty.
“Perhaps a friend on board will let a lifeboat slip or even a crate to rest on,” Cohen said with newfound spirit. But once again, his imagination failed him, Cohen could picture the outline of a man sneaking across the deck to Cohen’s aid but not his face. Just one face Cohen demanded from himself, but he was simply incapable he could not form a single face that would plausibly help him or even one that he enjoyed looking at. Not just on board the ship either, but across the whole world he struggled to remember a single friend. He had pushed all of them away, betrayed them, or simply ignored them in his arrogance -blind to the kindness of strangers which he had rejected. And now no one was there help him. Cohen felt the guilt in his heart which he had carried for so long, it’s weight seemed unbearable to him now.
“Let this pain hold me beneath the sea!” he shouted but no merciful smiting was given.
The Great Gnesher was a pale dot on the horizon, barely recognisable. Cohen thrashed in despair, she passed over the horizon leaving only the afterglow of her white sails which faded soon after. It was hopeless. A watery grave waited for him. It would wait for him through all his screaming fits, tantrums, and sobs. Nothing would avail that cold mistress the sea from absorbing his floundering matter. Every trace of his existence would be cast irretrievably across the seven seas: his flesh stripped by the scale and claw – his bones whet to nothing and lost forever in the shifting sands.
A hot prickling sensation rolled down from his neck to the bottom of his spine, the sun was at its meridian and shone down harshly on his balding head. Teeth clenched, he refused to give up. Cohen kept his eyes stuck fast to the exact point on the horizon where the ship had disappeared. Determined to the point of becoming entranced, his focus on maintaining a bearing became a paranoia. He tried to resist it – reassuring himself that he was self-correcting accurately to counteract being swayed by the waves – but the doubt lingered. Cohen was distraught, and he didn’t even know the purpose of keeping the bearing. An illusion of control, he concluded but could not bring himself to forget the idea. It continued to torment him. After all the landscape was entirely identical.
The bare ocean landscape had attracted him the sailing life in the first place. The lifestyle was clean and fresh, the sea air seemed to clean of all the hate and anger which had grown on him like craggy barnacles. Cohen could become anyone he wanted to. Throughout his life, he had been known as Artemis the Egyptian, Quivver the Frenchman, and lastly Cohen the Jew – though he had been born an Oliver in the port city of Liverpool, England. His mother had raised him alone and had told many a story about his father, he arrived on a ship from a far off land, spotted his mother from the wharf, and fallen in love in that instant – due to his sheer handsomeness she fainted and fell into the water, and she woke up cradled in his arms, he having rescued her… That much was consistent but his name, accent and nationality changed on every telling. Knowing not who he was or from whence he came, little Oliver fell victim to his mother’s tall tales and his identity became as fluid as the ocean he was now stranded in. How he wished he could be taken in his mother’s arms again. He was Cohen now, not Oliver, and he had no mother to yearn for.
“Oh come here Oliver, you silly boy,” his mother’s voice spoke clear as day. Cohen turned wildly but found no one.
“Who said that?” demanded Cohen, “A siren whore? You stinking sea witch present yourself!”
His rant was a weak attempt to distract him from the real fear that his mind, not a sweet siren, was playing tricks. Cohen realised suddenly his foolishness but it was too late – he had lost his bearing. The marker was gone, as was the mental stability it had brought. Spinning around in circles his eyes scurried from left to right, navigating his maze: a flat plain trapped between the endless bare sea and the eternal blue sky. In any case that couldn’t have been Mother, Cohen reasoned, she had never talked to him in such a loving manner before. The voice drew out memories. His childhood had been painted in bruises and blood, by various stepfathers. Their easel* was a belt, their brush an open hand, and the canvas his pale young cheeks and buttocks. His mother watched and simply let her various lovers take out their frustrations after a long day of work, an act that hurt Cohen more than the attacks ever could. He wept.
Wave crests whisper to him from below him, “Don’t cry, my love. You know the way out.” Cohen looked to the dark depths to see a nymph-like figure swimming below, she turned to face him and it was wife. Naked and twirling in the darkness below. She smiled at him and opened her mouth to speak. “My love…” he whispered in disbelief. Her words came in air bubbles, spluttering and choking though they retained a certain eloquence, as they breached the surface, “Join me. Join me, down here. I miss you so much, it was you who I needed all along.” Cohen’s first instinct was to spit at his wife, or the filthy adulterer as he called her among the other sailors of the Gnesher. The phantasm had yet again taken the image of a woman who had betrayed him. Cohen declined the invitation and shook his head with determination but still she flirtatious danced and caressed herself. “Down here you needn’t cry, you needn’t sob, you needn’t breathe another breath that would only lead you to more suffering. Come sleep.” Still, Cohen declined for a reason unknown to him. A hand reached out from the dark around her waist and pulled her into an embrace with a shadowy figure. It was William Kidd, his vacuousness eyes were unmistakable. His lover beckoned him to rescue her with her soft brown eyes. Wrath and lust waltzed in nether. He told himself it was a sense of honour that kept him from diving below to take the easy way out. But really it was because it would have meant giving up hope that his real wife still loved him. He would never admit this to himself, hidden under layers of his mind it was a hidden rip that bled freely beneath his consciousness. The spectral lovers morphed into a single monstrosity which grew scaled fins on its assortment of twisted limbs and disappeared back into the dark depths.
Cohen admitted to himself the siren had been tempting, a pleasurable escape from this hell, the ringed horizon he was stuck in may as well be on Neptune. He looked for any landmark which his gaze could grasp to and rest his attention upon. Instead, his attention wandered haphazardly. The brain is a device for solving problems and if it can’t find any, it will make some. And so Cohen’s boredom forced him to turn inward. Preemptively he braced for the gut punches his journey down this path would throw. So many lost opportunities, his family that he would never see again and who would be happy of the fact. The wife who he would never be able to apologise to for all the pain he caused. The lies he had spun around their relationship had been such a waste of time and eventually they both were strangled by them. His escape to the sea provided Cohen with a clean slate, where he could build himself up again the supreme liar he thought he was, he was not a miser with a failed marriage sailing the Great Gnesher but a Jewish captain of limitless charm and cruelty. But a lowly rat is a rat whether he sleeps with fleas or under silk, Cohen thought. He clutched his chest and felt the admittance tear a great hole in his heart: his greatest fault had always been pretending to be someone greater than he was. His life had been a tumble -crashing down one disastrous step at a time. Here he was sitting sorry at the very bottom of that pit.
The sun began to set. Golden streams of light hit Cohen’s teary eyes and he wondered if it would be the last time he would feel the sun’s tender kiss on his brow. In desperation, he stretched his head as far as he could trying to drink in as much as he could of that last precious sip. Night fell with quiet melancholy. Never had he felt so hopeless and helpless, the sea would not part if he whispered lies to the white foam caps that floated by. No control could be wrestled from the tides, his life was at its nadir and could not sink any lower.
Cohen went limp, closed his eyes, and let his head descend back into the water. For so long he had been fighting, stealing, lying because he was scared – because he thought it was simply the way to survive. And now it was time to pay his dues and so he finally let go and simply laid on his back. Expecting to sink, Cohen instead found himself supported as if by an unseen hand supporting him, swaying him calmly. His mood began to change.
The benefit of hitting rock bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up. And Cohen felt lifted. There was no reason to pretend anymore, the ship was gone, the world was gone, and all the people with their judging eyes. It didn’t matter if he went by Cohen now, or Oliver as was known before, or any other name, he was just himself in that moment. This pure and fetterless joy was completely alien to him, Cohen felt he was in the presence of something infinitely gentle. The waves caressed him and he let his mind wander with the tides. His eyelids opened of their own accord, a thousand candles lit flickered in the dark.
“Oh, the stars, the stars,” Cohen smiled. They had always been consistent in his shifting world where his surroundings, his companions, and even his identity were in flux. Out here they danced in unobstructed glory, away from the sot fuming fires and smog of ship and city. The waves had subsided and the now flat sea acted as a mirror for the heavens above. The horizon melted away as sky and sea became one. His world was a satin tapestry pierced with glittering diamonds. The stars which had guided his Gnesher for so many years took on a new life. Flying among the constellations he saw his guides by his wing. Cygnus, the swan – her elegant neck stretched across the cosmos. Corvus, the crow – his watchful eye keeping vigil over the world. Cohen weaved past them. His guide was the king of all, a greater hunter than Orion, more beautiful than Andromeda: Aquila, the eagle. Aquila’s wings were of such enormity and grace that Cohen was drawn under their shadow, spinning and rolling like a tide pulling back out to sea.
Cohen laughed, “Why did I ever fear you? Never did you leave my side, always watching and waiting, I thought you were my hunter- little did I know that it was from love that you stared.”
Not only love – but love despite. Despite his lies, his flaws, everything wrong he had committed and all those he was yet to commit. Under the eagle’s gaze he was filled with courage- not the type of courage to dive once more into the breach, but the simple act of loving despite. Cohen loved music, loved stories, loved to dance, loved to fuck, but these were all very easy things to love. His challenge, which he met bravely, was to love all those who wronged him.
He found love for his family that had abandoned him, his unfaithful wife, and even for William Kidd. All at once a great burden slipped off his back. A great force gripped his chest, Cohen reasoned that Aquila had found him worthy and swooped down upon him from the heavens. Tucked under the eagle’s cradled wings – Cohen smiled, nestled under a starlight quilt, and slipped into a dreamless sleep.