The crew was quiet, letting the faint airy whistling from Sam cut across the deck. He was twisting through a tune of his own craft, another dirge by the sound of it. They’d all been dirges since he lost his ear two raids ago. He’d not taken the loss well. Nor had he taken kindly to the resulting nickname.
“Blow m’buckets, Sidehole! Can ye not give us something with cheer!?”
The grizzled first mate turned to look at the brawny green horn who was berating him. The raid that lost him his ear was Big Timmy’s first. Now the kid was laughing with the deckhand next to him, who was nervously laughing along and obviously scared to do so. Sam's mournful tune continued in perfect time, and he kept toying with the rope in his hands. I watched from the helm, a smirk forming on my lips. Then, faster than even my keen eyes could see, Sam’s knife had flown across the deck and stuck into the mast between Big Timmy and the deckhand. As Timmy turned his face, I could see on it only a moment of astonishment before a giant knot landed squarely upon his nose. Dirge be damned, the whole crew burst out laughing, and through their laughter Sam never missed a single sorrowful beat.
After a time the sad whistling seized and finally the crew was free to sing. Claudio started them as he always does. Yellow sang the loudest and miles off pitch as always, his wavy blonde hair flapping gently with the tailwind. I was just about to join the ballad when I noticed Sam climbing the steps to join me.
“The course, cap’n?”
We looked out at the distant thunderheads that had been drifting into our heading.
“It’s a meeting. We’re strutting into it.”
“Aye. But is she a biter?”
We looked a long time at the horizon and the tips of the clouds. Sam looked behind us to the high wispy clouds pushing across the sky. He went and leaned over the rail to observe the mist off our bow and the chop of the waves.
“What say you, Sam?” I shouted to him. He walked back to the helm thoughtfully before speaking.
“She’s a biter, no doubt. Maybe a breaker.”
“The mast can hold.”
“The men can hold.”
“We don’t want the ones who can’t.”
“Well, let us discover who sings through a biter.”
They looked to Timmy and the deckhand, the only green on the ship. The scrawny deckhand’s name was John, but nobody dared call him that for fear of offending Quiet John, who manned the galley and was large as an ox with a temper as tricky as a port love. So, the deckhand was simply called deckhand until another name settled.
“Big Timmy will love it. He’s of a spirit for a biter, always will be until one kills him.”
“Strong and stupid, that one,” I said.
“We can use strong and stupid.”
“Aye. And lil deckhand?”
“Maybe we can name him for the color of his upchuck.”
Then it came to me. “Pinky.”
It was the first time Sam had smiled in weeks. “Aye, it fits.”
He walked back down the steps off the quarter deck, invigorated by the looming showdown with the tempest.
“Timmy! Pinky! Is that not the first broke nose ye ever seen!? For wind and depth, wrap a rag on his face and leave it! The stores below need tightened for the storm. I swear if one barrel rolls port to star you’ll both be dry dock til the blumqueens know yer given name. Git!”
In the short time Sam walked the deck shouting preparations and inspecting the rigging, I watched the tempest clouds grow before us. It was as if the storm had heard our decision and scoffed. As if it saw our preparations and began rallying itself for the challenge of breaking us. By the time the ship was set, the clouds were towering above us, so high we had to look straight up to see their tops. Although, to look straight up we need not bend our necks. The waves we’re such that as we travelled up them we were briefly looking to the sky, then we’d crest and find ourselves looking to the depths. It felt as if we were going no where. It felt as if The Creation was contemplating our fate… upward or downward? I thought myself as a tiny captain of a tiny toy boat in the hand of a ruthless child who was playing in the surf, the day sunny and bright for him while dire and desperate for me, waiting to see what he would do with me. Still the clouds above bloomed. Still they expanded. What had seemed to be a biter, was now most certainly a breaker.
The mushrooming thunderhead pushed onward toward the heavens, now beautifully bathed in the golden rays of dusk, as gorgeous as a woman has ever been and promising as much heartache too. For beneath magical highlights of tan and pink stretched a thin dark line of sea upon which no light could reach. The wind was pulling us hard into it, as if gravity itself were helping it. And this ushering wind spoke in my ear evil promises of torment and tribulation, for it knew now that I couldn’t turn back. Otherwise, if I could, it lie evil promises as it did before, claiming to be naught but a fun lil biter. So I shook my head at the treacherous wind and all it said. It had lied before and it lied to me still, I thought.
“Torment and tribulation,” it said, “I’m taking you to torment and tribulation.”
“I’ll see the other side of it, sunny and smooth as before,” I replied back in a mutter, “You’ll take me there too.”
The final ambient touches of daylight faded from our eyes and on cue the rain started. A few drops turned into a shower. Minutes later it was a deluge.
We fought to keep the ship straight, all of us in our stations, straining our backs to clench the ropes and wood. Laborious as it was, and likely frightening for the youngs, it was typical sailing in stormy a sea. We were even able heave-to for about a quarter to rest the men. Sam brought up the idea of lying ahull, but we had done that once in our early days and hated the idea ever since. We knew assertive sailing with a sharp crew was a safer than any other way. We leaned on our time together, reading the waves as best we could by a lantern hung from the bow spirit. My early days as a sailor had me manning that lantern, crawling out to replace it with a fresh flame when waves doused it. I became quite familiar with sea’s great desire to swallow men whole.
This lasted a few hours, a long hard grind in the endless churning in the pitch dark. We found ourselves in that realm where water and air were no longer separated as the good Lord had ordained them to be. It was not new to me, this feeling that I’d wondered far from His fine will, from His perfect order. In any sort, this was the life I’d chosen and likewise I’d chosen to sail into this storm, and I dare not lose my rudder now. If this was the realm where water and air were as one, then I would learn to breath both. I let out a primal, guttural war cry, an incoherent sounding of man’s stubborn fighter’s pride. The men, in unison, responded with the same.
The mast was holding strong, as Sam and I expected. The men also were holding strong, through I could just barely see the greens through the chaotic darkness.
In the back of mind, I was worried about only one thing: I’d seen all of this before.
This was a nasty sort of biter. It was the kind that brands you with a visible scar so when walk into any port pub the old men avert their eyes, knowing only stories of the wild one who gives that brand, pretending sorrow as to hide their jealousy, starting boasts of their own scars to distract from the one you carry. Yes, it was that kind of terrible biter, but it was still not a breaker. In the back of my mind, even as I let out that primal shout, I knew. I looked to Sam, and after he finished shouting with the men he looked to me. I could see that he knew also. This storm had yet to show itself. On the other side of it there were only dirges to whistle.
We went another couple hours like this, pushed to the limits of our strength but not beyond it. The storm showed no sign of letting up. Timmy and Pinky, unweathered as they were, probably thought this was the end of life. The rest of the men were likely unfazed, but certainly respected the magnitude of this storm. Many of them, seasoned as they were, had not fought through a night like this. Myself and Sam were neither frightened or unfazed, but confused. We saw what had been shown to us in golden hour and we knew this night should be even worse, but it wasn’t. So we fought on, wondering perhaps if this wasn’t the breaker it promised to be.
At one point, as Yellow tried to untangle rope from the ripped jib sail, he lost grip and went overboard. But his waist line held and he was easily hoisted back on deck. Scrawny little Pinky was getting blown all over the place, but managed to stay on solid wood. In the crow’s nest, our sighter Pierce was proving to all of us what a madman he was, cackling hysterically at the whipping rain and shouting all the Latin phrases he learned as a schoolboy.
“Quid infantes sumus!?”
“Vivamus, moriendum est!!!”
“Finis coronat opus! Aere perennius!!”
On and on he went. Only he knows if he knew what he said.
Finally, around middle of night, we were hit with a cross wave that let us know mama had arrived. The hours upon hours of struggle in which it seemed to me that the storm was holding back were then behind us. The waves crashed hard into the port side and rocked the boat so violently that Pierce was nearly level with me when immediately another wave hit us on the starboard bow. How the ship didn’t waterlog and sink in that moment, I’ll never know. I had heard Quiet John was mumbling strange voodoo as he battened the hatches earlier. Perhaps it worked. The ship, though completely submerged somehow burst out from the side of the mountainous wave and tipped downward to fall toward its valley. By the time we were climbing the next wave the men whose waistline ropes had saved them were back on board, miraculously. Pierce was no longer shouting Latin, but I saw his silhouette in a flash of lightning as he was hugging the mast and kissing it.
We crested the wave and were immediately hit again with a second cross wave, just as strong as before but at least we expected this follow up. I could now see the brutal motivation this storm had. In the flying white foam, I saw its sawed teeth. In the suffocating washes, I felt it’s choking grip. I perceived its strategy, to tire us for hours, to tempt us into complacency, only hit us with the heaviest cross waves imaginable to turn us sideways beneath one of the seawater mountains. With the second cross wave, I felt it through the helm, the strength of the depths with which I was fighting as it attempted to twist our rudder and pull us into certain death. I used every once strength. Sam saw and lent his strength. It was not enough and we crested the next wave at a bad angle. Once again, we should have perished. Somehow instead of the ship falling sideways and toppling over, it straightened itself and our keel slid smoothly down the valley. Perhaps some barrels down below had rolled to the bow and helped us. I cannot explain it. The third cross wave hit us, but now we also had Quiet John at the helm and the three of us kept the rudder in line. Big Timmy took John’s place at the main sail.
“Perhaps having two strong men aboard will be our saving grace!” I shouted to Sam.
Mentally, I braced myself for the task ahead. I remembered all the stories my grandfather and uncle had told me as a boy. I thought of my fathers demise. I knew the pattern. The ninth wave was the killer. We lived through three.
The the fourth wave hit us, stronger than the others, and with a nasty follow-up like the first. Nonetheless we held strong, having adjusted to the new fury. Five came. We held. Six, seven and eight. All men accounted for, exhausted and seriously doubting their own survival.
We crested yet another wave, the highest we’d seen yet, and began the descent. We were so thoroughly drenched that we’d become one with deep blue. That we were still breathing air seemed an anomaly, if not an injustice. Her wrath had paid for the acquisition of our souls, yet we sailed. Coughing as I was, I my heart rested easy, accepting of whatever was to come. Would I meet my end as my father had? Would I survive and tell the tale? I did not know nor did I have a strong desire either way. If this storm didn’t kill me, it certainly had proved that it could. I knew we were only still afloat but for two moments of miraculous chance. The first cross wave combination should have sunk us. Cresting the third at an angle should have toppled us. So, if the ninth wave was the end of us, so be it. Or if we received a third moment of unearthly salvation, so be it. I surrendered, even as I held strong, even as I fervently hoped, I was surrendered.
We reached the bottom of that tallest wave. Our bow stabbed into the ocean and cut upward into then next mountain, the chaotic mix of water and barely gaspable air enveloping us as we rose. We rose and crested and descended again. No cross wave. No ninth wave.
We cut into another mountain and rose and fell. No breaker. No ending.
Again and again we bobbed through the violent sea. Fighting. Awaiting. Hours. Nothing.
Then, inexplicably, the seas calmed. I thought for sure it must be morning come to save us, for there was a hint of light somewhere. The wind slowly died and the rain eased to a drizzle. A dense fog grew up around the ship. The hint of light became a strange glowing ahead and the fog lifted barely above the water to reveal to us a sight unlike anything men have right to see. Indeed, Claudio kneeled and several of the men followed as if he was once again leading a chorus. Most of them were half-drowned, struggling to cough up ocean water persisting in their lungs. Some tried to kneel and tumbled onto the deck. I myself was leaning heavily on Quiet John next to me, but managed to straighten myself for this mysterious wonder.
Far out ahead of us, floating peacefully on the pitch black calm ocean, was something akin to a giant pearl disc, standing upright upon the sea, glowing white like a full moon. It was roughly double the size of our ship and the strange white light it radiated shown down into the depths, green turquoise blue and navy. Many fish and a few whales could be seen swimming calmly beneath it . There was nothing above it save the ceiling of fog which reflected its light.
“The Heart of the Sea,” one of the men said.
Not one of us knew any better explanation, so we accepted his word as gospel.
As we watched, a smaller light appeared above the floating pearl moon and flew towards us, moving in a way I always imagined a spectre must move. It came to our bow, a small floating pearl of light, a miniature of it’s mother. As soon as it arrived it began retreating back to the pearl disc, but with us in tow, pulling us through that windless water, the top of our mast scraping the vaporous white above us.
Our speed increased and it became obvious that we were going into the great white circle. The men suddenly became quite frightened. In the last moment before we were to collide with it, I saw Big Timmy dash across the deck and dive overboard, but he became stopped in midair just beyond the rail.
All went white. Time vanished. When we could see again, it was daytime. Clear skies. Turquoise waters. Big Timmy resumed his movement through the air to dive perfectly into pretty tropical waves.
At my feet was the smaller light, a glowing pearl, the size of a coconut. I picked it up and saw the strange etched writing on it. But before I could begin to look closer, a hideous screech burst our ears. It was coming from our starboard side, the side Timmy had jumped from.
Far away, in the darker blue of deeper water, great tentacles of sea monster could be seen protruding and splashing in some sort of struggle. The screech had come from some large birds that were fleeing that scene, but the birds themselves were unlike anything we’d ever witnessed: long headed with long beaks and long bodies that had three wings on each side. They screeched again and flew over us toward an island.
The island looked like any typical island that litters the tropics, the obvious exception being the six-winged birds flying toward and giant sea monster roaming its deeper waters.
“What’s it say cap’n?” Sam’s voice came like the only familiar thing I’d felt in a decade.
I looked down at the pearl in my hands. A small portion of the writing had lit up.
“Apricus. It says Apricus.”
“How does it know our ship?” Quiet John asked, still clenching the helm with his giant hands.
“I think that’s the name of this place. Maybe our ship carriers the same name, just by a happens chance.”
“No,” an old voice came from the crew, “No, not chance. I knew the man of who your grandfather knew, the man who saw over the building of this ship. A strange cooky pirate was he. Very strange. The shipmaker knew his craft and his craft was things unknown. Mark my words, he named her for a reason.”
I looked back down to the white glowing ball, the name of my father’s ship etched upon it.
“Well, wherever we are, here we are and there best be rum.”
The men cheered.
“Aye cap’n,” Sam said quietly, “but how to get back our seas. That be the rub.”