Stories for Haiti
The folks over at Crossed Genres are posting stories for donations for the Haiti relief effort. If you like my contribution, and I hope you do, please pop over to Crossed Genres and donate something to the relief effort.
Below you can read my contribution. It is a previously unpublished story, one that has always been near and dear to my heart. I hope it can bring someone else the same kind of enjoyment I've always found in it, and perhaps, through your donations, help for the people of Haiti.
THE CAPTAIN’S MERCIFUL DEATH
He nearly fell out of his chair when he was told The Captain’s Merciful Death had docked in his port; he couldn’t believe it and had to see for himself. Captain Lorcal had some explaining to do, thought the Harbor Master, a lot of explaining.
When he saw the ship, he further amended his thoughts. Fifteen years worth of explaining.
The once beautiful ship was a horror to behold. The ornate figurehead looked as if she’d been raped a million times, the planks were worn from the sun, salt wind, and sea, the main mast looked as if it would barely stand on its own, as if it would come crashing down if a slight breeze so much as considered blowing; the ratlines drooped like the strands of a severed spider’s web, the once immaculate sails
hung in shreds.
Surveying the damage, the Harbor Master charged up the gangplank. “What
happened here? Where’s Captain Lorcal?”
The haggard crew looked around and pointed limply towards the door of the hold. The Harbor Master nodded his thanks to the men, ordered them into the port authority, and followed their directions down to the Captain’s quarters.
Stepping through the door of the tight, warm hold, his sinuses were immediately
awash in an overwhelming flood of horrific smells: dead fish, heavy concentration of
salt water and burnt wood, something else he couldn’t place—human death? Death warmed over! he thought, placing a blue handkerchief to his nose. What in the hell happened here?
He called up his courage and resumed his course through the tight compartment. At the far end, the Captain’s door loomed before him. He got a strange feeling of dread when he touched the brass handle. Tiny spiders seemed to crawl up and down his spine, though this was just his usually unshakable nerves. He thought he should knock, but in raising his hand to do so, he was cut short by a barely audible call from the other side.
When he opened the door, he saw Captain Nolan Lorcal as he had never seen him before. He had been handsome, debonair at one time; had always kept himself in the most immaculate condition, and he had to admit some of that remained, but
most of it was gone. There was something . . . something odd about him, something he had never seen before in his life.
He narrowed his gray eyes slightly, hoping the change in focus might throw the
man into better light, but the gesture was useless. Something was different. Was it his hair? The last time he had seen the Captain, it had been soft, splendid, chestnut brown in color; now it was dull, heavy—in color, weight, and behavior almost like mud, he thought. His eyes too, were odd. They were no longer brown, they were
. . . almost glowing. That’s absurd, he told himself, glancing up to the strange, thin lamps that hung from the ceiling. It’s the lanterns. But he had never seen lanterns quite like this before: their protection glass was red and the shape resembled cylinders so slim that the lanterns seemed two-dimensional and he wondered for a moment how they could hold the flame.
“Is it too cold in here? It seems cold to me,” Captain Lorcal commented.
Actually, it seemed too warm and stuffy in the room for him. When the Harbor Master looked at him questioningly, Nolan held a hand out to indicate the chair he should take.
“Come, sit, Admiral.”
The Harbor Master was startled by his hand. It didn’t have the look of the hand of a man who had spent the last fifteen years daily on a sunny ship’s deck; it was drawn, thin, too wrinkled, gray. Nolan blinked and the Harbor Master did take the offered seat.
“Captain, I. . . . Well, you must realize the oddity of all this.”
“Why should I, Admiral?” He frowned. “My men have all performed their duties as I instructed them, have they not?”
He paused and studied his eyes. Something . . . He shook his head. “Well, you’ve been out fifteen years, Captain. You have to admit, that’s more than a little odd.”
He smiled. “Is it? I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
Something seemed strange about the captain’s teeth, he thought. They weren’t quite yellow, but they weren’t white, brown, green or gray either—which they would have been had he continued to take care of them or if he had just stopped brushing them in the fifteen years he had been at sea; and his gums were awkward, almost non-existent. He shook his head. “Well, I know you tend to lose track of time out here, but Jesus, Nolan, fifteen years? Your family’s been worried about you; your crew’s families have been worried about them!” He chuckled suddenly, something he hadn’t meant to do, something he felt to be inappropriate to the eerie nature of the situation. “You wouldn’t believe the trail of people who have come through my office wondering about you. Why’d you stay out so long?”
The man stared right at him, never moved once he had taken his seat, except to smile at him. “I’ll tell you a story, Admiral. We were out around the eastern coast of Greenland, no? Well, that’s why we were so slow about it.”
The Harbor Master looked at the Captain questioningly. “I don’t think I
understand you, Nolan.”
“Greenland’s an interesting place; ever been there?”
“A few times.”
“Ah, well then you know what I mean!” He paused, and seemed to stare right through the Harbor Master. “Anyway, we met this set of young sisters there—that is to say, my first mate—”
“George Herish?” He narrowed his eyes. “Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing him come through the—”
“Haven’t seen him for almost a year, James.”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Nolan, you’re being vague. Get to the point, where’s George? And why does it seem as if everyone on this boat has seen the Devil Incarnate?”
“Maybe they have, James.”
The Harbor Master stared at him. “You said something about a set of sisters?”
“Oh, yes. Margrethe and . . . and . . . I forget their names now. . . .”
“Not important, Nolan. What was it about the girls that makes you mention them?”
The Captain never stopped staring at James once, his eyes boring into the
man’s soul. The Harbor Master shook the feeling off and waited for his friend’s reply. “Well, at first, nothing,” Nolan said. “And I guess, you might say it was all
superstition—you know, having women on board a ship could cause—”
“A disaster?” James sighed heavily and slid down in the chair. “You don’t believe that old fable, do you?”
“Never have. Nice girls; but, they were a little odd.”
“Oh, what? Now you’re going to tell me they were spirits or something? I’ve read lots of ghost stories, Nolan; I have an idea as to how this goes.”
“Good,” Nolan said, without emotion, “then I won’t bore you with a story about a demon ship.”
James sat up straight in the chair then and stared. “Exactly what are you trying to say?”
The Captain was silent for a while, his eyes flickering in the low, eerie light of
the cabin. Finally, he waved off the silence with a thin hand. “Have you ever heard of the constellation Cygnus, James?”
“Of course, everyone who knows their navigation has.”
“Have you ever touched it, I mean really seen it with more than your eyes?”
The Harbor Master looked at him questioningly. “Vague, Nolan.”
“Well, James, everything that’s happened to us in these years has been vague--or I guess I should say, everything that’s happened to me. You want to know where we’ve been? Well, the men have been either on the ship or on land in eastern Greenland. Where I’ve been . . . where George is . . . it’s a little hard to explain.”
“What? Look, can you at least tell me what happened to the sisters you were telling me about?”
The Harbor Master groaned, “Like your sense of reality, I’m afraid.”
“I can’t clarify it in terms easy enough for you to understand, I’m sorry to say! But if I had to give some sort of explanation, I, George, the sisters, they are . . . No, that’s too vague. Let me put it in more down-to-earth terms for you, James, my friend. I guess, in your reality, you would believe that George and I and these sisters spent these years following this constellation through the sky—that is to say, wherever we guessed it was going to rise next, we moved the ship’s position to correspond with it and anchored until it moved again.”
Nolan nodded. “You could say that. From your point of view—taking that story in its context—it would sound absurd. But if you give me a moment, you’ll understand. Now, would you like to hear what I have to say or are you going to keep scoffing?” James waved him to continue. “Well, at first, I didn’t understand it, either, in truth. I guess I still don’t, not really. George was the first to catch them at it. They were . . . I don’t know how to explain it. When he first saw what they were doing, he ran to get me.”
“Anyway, what I saw and what he saw . . . I have no way of knowing if they were the same thing or not. What I saw though, was strange. Their cabin was—now, don’t ask me how George got into these girls’ cabin, you know how he was.” He paused for a moment, but made no move. “Fire. I can’t explain it, James, but these girls—well, they weren’t like any human I’ve ever seen!”
“Fire?” The Harbor Master blinked. “Are you trying to tell me these girls are the ones responsible for the smoke I keep smelling?”
The Captain stared right through his friend for several minutes and again, he
tried to study Nolan. The lanterns blinked out suddenly, but Nolan made no move to re-light them, even barking at the Harbor Master when he took the initiative. Reclaiming his seat, he waited, listening to the slap of the waves against the ship’s wooden planks, the squawks of sea gulls outside the Captain’s small, paper-covered porthole.
“At first I thought I’d eaten something that didn’t agree with me,” he finally said, no emotion tingeing his voice in the slightest. “The entire situation was surreal, like a nightmare, and yet I couldn’t convince myself I was actually asleep. They were. . . . It was as if they. . . . I thought. . . .” He sighed. “It’s too absurd even still!” he chuckled. “James, you’re going to think I’m insane, but these girls lived in fire—that is to say, what engulfed their cabin was not air, not the warmth of the summer heat, but actual, wood-eating, skin-searing, fire!”
In spite of himself, the Harbor Master howled with laughter, wasting several minutes in the mirth before he realized he was laughing alone. “Fire, Nolan? You’re serious? Fire?”
The Captain nodded.
“I told you, I don’t know how to explain it—and George and I spent plenty of time trying to come up with some sort of explanation for what we were experiencing.”
“And what were you experiencing?”
“Well, at first it was just intrigue. George had caught the girls in the act of. . . . He showed me that they were. . . lounging around their flame-engulfed room as if nothing in the world was odd about it. But the more I thought about those girls—and I did quite often between leaving Greenland and returning home—the more curious I became. So, I began to spend time with them whenever they would emerge from their furnace—and they did, at least once a day.” He paused. “I suppose even for sprites—or whatever you want to call them, James—they needed to eat, as well!”
“At any rate, I spent time with them. They never told me very much; they tended to quiz me on my own life more than anything. Then, one night, they invited me into their flame-room—that is to say, they invited George and he convinced me I had to go along with him; he wasn’t going alone, but he wasn’t not going to go, you know how he was about girls.”
The Harbor Master grinned. “I promise, I’ll keep this part from Gwen!”
“It doesn’t matter.”
He blinked. “So, what happened?”
Again, a long pause. “Did you tell me you’ve seen Cygnus?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Ah, well. . . . Where was I?”
“Oh, yes. Well, we spent a long time watching them—that’s all, just watching them. They never said a word to us inside that cabin, but as I said, they did emerge once a day for a meal. When they did, they spoke of other things, but not one word was said about what went on in that room.”
“So, we followed them back into their cabin one night after dinner. This time, they showed us a telescope they had set up against their starboard porthole—no, I
don’t remember seeing it the few times before, but there it was this night.
“Anyway, trying to be learned and impress the girls, George thought he’d point out Orion’s belt or some other constellation—I don’t remember now which one it was. But, what he had found, and proceeded to wrongly identify, was Cygnus. The
girls corrected his mistake—slowly, true, but in the end, it was quite a vicious
The Harbor Master gasped and sat forward, relaxing the grip he had on the leather chair-arms only after intense mental coaxing. He flushed nervously and cleared his throat. “Vicious? What? They killed George? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? You were transporting half-demon/half-women murderers?”
“What I’m saying is that not only were these women not human, they had somehow altered our course. What I am telling you is that when George pointed out the constellation, wrongly identified or not, they decided to arrange it so neither of us could tell anyone about it! Now do you understand?”
The Harbor Master blinked. “They threatened you?”
“They restrained us.”
“They made you. . . . What?”
The Captain shook his head. “I started spending more and more time with the sisters, less and less with my own men—in truth, I never even told them what had happened to George.”
“How could you have spent—”
“I had no other choice, James! I had to! Otherwise. . . .” He shrugged. “After a while, I didn’t want to leave anymore.”
“I’ll keep that from Gwen, too.” He thought Nolan frowned, but he couldn’t really tell in the darkness. The lanterns sparked to life again, causing the Harbor
Master to jump in his seat.
“Too cold. Anyway, I went out occasionally just to make certain the men didn’t mutiny on me, but otherwise, I stayed with the sisters—not much else I could do, really.”
Nolan sighed, paused for a while, and shook his head. “James, I think it would be best if you left now.”
“I want to hear the rest of this.”
“You don’t. And I don’t want to tell you; there’s no reason for me to tell you any more.”
“God damnit, Nolan, your ship is beaten worse than an old rug, your men are out there staring at me like statues! Now, that is reason enough for you to explain yourself!”
“Did any of them tell you why they’re out there on deck alone, James, hm? Didn’t you wonder why it’s so warm in here?”
He blinked. He had wondered, at that. “What are you saying?”
“I cannot be with my men anymore; George couldn’t be with them. After a while, I gave over the command of The Captain’s Merciful Death to them; there wasn’t anything else I could do. I couldn’t take how cold it was out there, James. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“How cold. . . . Nolan, it’s summer, for Christ’s sake!”
The Captain shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s too cold. It always seems to be too cold out there.”
The Harbor Master stared at him for a long time. “You became like the sisters, didn’t you? That’s why you spent all these years away from port?”
Nolan lowered his eyes, staring quietly at a log before him. “Yes,” he hissed.
The Harbor Master blinked, mentally forced his heart to slow down to a normal pace. “Where have you been?”
“Where haven’t I been? Wherever Cygnus was, that’s where we went.” He paused. “We’d go out with the girls when they did—to get dinner, to get some air, I guess; mostly we went out to get a better look at the position of Cygnus. And when we did, my men always looked at me strangely, apprehensively. That’s when I handed control over the ship to Louis. I think that made the men feel better; that way, they wouldn’t have to try to come find me to get navigation or have arguments settled. But, they didn’t like that I commanded they not turn for home until I ordered it.
“And then, of course, when the girls finally forced George outside, they didn’t want to obey that order. I guess it startled them just as much as it did me.”
The Captain shrugged. “He just couldn’t enter their cabin. He’d spend a few hours at a time out on deck, but it never seemed to be warm enough; he couldn’t stay warm enough out there, and he could find no place on the ship that was as warm as that room, not even the galley, nor the boiler room. And there was no convincing those girls to help him, either. I tried arguing that this little error wasn’t terrible enough to warrant what they were doing to him.
“The only explanation the Doctor could give was that he died of a chill, but I don’t think the other men really believed that—not that they would ever believe the real story.”
“You know, it was tough, seeing my best friend go through what he did, and I
tried to convince those girls to let him back into their cabin—our cabin—but they
wouldn’t change their minds . . . And I didn’t know what to do to help him.”
He paused for a few minutes, narrowing his eyes at the door. The lamps flickered again, and again, the Harbor Master felt the temperature escalate. “After that, we came home. I don’t know what happened to the sisters—useless to ask, really. They taught me what I’d have to do. But, like George, I too made a fatal mistake.”
“Fatal—” The Harbor Master stared at him for a long time, trying to discern the meaning of the story he had been told. Finally, his eyes grew wide and he drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “How did you die?”
The Captain nodded. “So, now you understand? I remained outside for a long time—like I said, it was just too cold. No one forced me to go, I just . . . forgot the consequences, I suppose. Frankly, I’m quite surprised I didn’t exactly end up like George did.”
Stunned, James nodded. “Too cold. And now, because of it, they’re all afraid of you.” He paused for a long time and studied his friend. Now he understood why Nolan seemed so different! The metaphysical aspects of this annoyed him. This is the eighteenth century, after all! He’d only considered such notions as a child, and James prided himself on believing he’d left childish things behind with the need for his mother’s breast.
But, what the Harbor Master couldn’t understand was, if Nolan was . . . dead, why did he seem so physical; what was he physically still doing here?
“It’s too cold anywhere else.”
“So, what do you want me to tell Gwen?”
“Tell her. . . . Tell her not to worry about me. I’m going to take The Captain’s Merciful Death—you always told me I should change the ship’s name, didn’t you?” The Captain paused a moment. “I think I’ll head back out to Greenland, or maybe Australia, I don’t know yet; it will depend on Cygnus, of course.”
“Of course.” And Greenland? Was that his home now? Or Heaven? Or Hell?
He thought Nolan smiled, but the expression was too brief for notice; shivers went up his spine. “Tell my men I won’t be needing their help on this trip; they are free to go about their lives, or their own voyages. I want to make this one alone.”
The Harbor Master nodded understanding, and left the cabin, making his way quickly down the gangplank. Looking back, he saw Nolan Lorcal standing in the porthole of his cabin, the paper curtain now torn away so he could see, the ship pulling away from the dock . . . unmanned. The sea breeze stirred his uniform shirt, his hair and he sighed, “You’re right, Nolan, it is too cold. By God, you were right all along.”
©1998, 2010 and beyond Julianne Draper