Captain Simon Barbarossa stared at the gray, infected growth on his arm. It was a fungus of some sort, but he knew not what kind. Fungus grew rampant here, spreading across the island like a fogbank engulfing a wayward schooner.
Against the fiery orange sunset, the Dawnbreaker lay crippled on the beach in silhouette, her hull cracked nearly in two. She looked like a wench leftover from a night of pillaging.
His stomach growled. The reserves of food in the Dawnbreaker had gone dry three days earlier. Hoping for rescue was pointless; even if a ship did come along, why would the crew rescue the notorious Simon Barbarossa from his imprisonment? Maybe he’d earned this misery. Perhaps this was God’s way of punishing Barbarossa for his crimes. An eternity in hell would not be enough, so some of the torment had spilled into his mortal life. Captain Barbarossa had raped, pillaged, plundered, and murdered enough to earn him ten eternities in hell. Some of his victims had been neither foe nor neutral, but trusted friends.
“Eat the fungus,” arose a voice.
What foul trickery of the mind was this? Barbarossa lifted his head and looked around, only to find himself alone. He turned his attention to his infected arm again.
“Eat the fungus.”
This time, Barbarossa turned to the source of the voice, his hunger-ravaged vision taking a moment to focus. In the fungus coating a tree at the edge of the beach, Barbarossa discerned a man’s face. As Barbarossa looked on, a pair of shoulders appeared, followed by arms and a torso. When the legs finished forming, a figure stepped out of the tree.
“Who are you?” Barbarossa inquired.
“You don’t recognize me?”
How could he? The humanoid was gray from head to toe, his facial features vague and undefined. Then, the creature’s face distorted, revealing a spider web-shaped deformity around its empty left eye socket. Barbarossa traced the scar on his cheek with his fingers—his sole remaining memory of a man that had once been his first mate.
“Powell?” Surely this was a figment of his imagination. Had Barbarossa’s hunger compelled him to hallucinate? “But…you’re dead!”
“I forgive you,” Powell said, strolling down the beach and taking a seat on a log. “We were drunk. Besides, you were right: I got that ace from my sleeve.”
Barbarossa shook his head. Did his eyes deceive him? “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to help.”
“How so?” Barbarossa gestured at the Dawnbreaker. “Nothing on this island can repair the ship.”
“Civilization is expanding. Sooner or later, people will arrive to wipe out natives and build ports. You just need last until then.”
Barbarossa’s stomach rumbled. “That seems unlikely.”
“Eat the fungus.”
“That’s crazy! What if it’s poisonous?”
“What is there to lose? Stay here on the beach and you’ll die. You’ll be remembered in history as the disgraced Captain Barbarossa, whose crew mutinied and left him to shipwreck and perish on an uncharted island. Eat the fungus and maybe you’ll die gloriously.” Powell rose and started back to the tree. “It’s up to you, Captain. You always were a gambling man—” He turned, pointing to his disfigured eye. “And I know how much you hate to lose.”
Before Barbarossa could reply, Powell stepped into the tree. The fungus absorbed him, and moments later he was gone.
Barbarossa’s stomach rumbled. Powell had made a good point. What did he have to lose? He wandered up the beach and inspected the soft, hairy fungus. Scraping a bit from the trunk, he observed the vile black color underneath, and then popped the fungus into his mouth.
What flavor! The fungus was delicious! He removed another patch. It was chewy, but seemed to melt on his tongue, and the hairs tickled his throat on the way down.
Barbarossa stripped the trunk of fungus and moved to another tree. His stomach groaned appreciatively, his strength increasing with every bite. He stripped three trees before stopping.
With a full belly, Captain Barbarossa felt stronger than ever, like he could swim all the way across the ocean and defeat the British Navy with one hand tied behind his back. Invigorated, he stretched. His eyes fell to his arm, and his jaw dropped.
The fungus on his arm had spread. It was now about three inches in diameter and expanding. Scratching the growth caused white-hot pain to shoot through his arm.
“Powell! Powell, what’s happening?”
The fungus stretched up his arm and across his chest, and then up his neck. Barbarossa could still breath, even as it covered his mouth and nose, and he could still see after it enveloped his eyes.
“Powell! Come back!”
Barbarossa tapped at a patch of fungus on one of the trees. “Pow—”
The tree absorbed his hand, and began eating his arm.
“Powell! Help me!”
Bit by bit, the tree consumed him. He felt like he was on a ship, and the anchor had been dropped with the rope wound around his wrist. The tree consumed his chest and leg, and finally, with one loud slurp, sucked Barbarossa inside.
“Powell?” Barbarossa looked down. Where his feet should have been, he only saw the tree trunk.
The sun descended below the horizon. Barbarossa’s hunger was satiated, perhaps never to return again. All he could do was hope for another shipwreck--and another hungry seaman.
Thereafter we kept from the abominable food, though the desire for it had entered into our blood. Yet our drear punishment was upon us; for, day by day, with monstrous rapidity, the fungoid growth took hold of our poor bodies. Nothing we could do would check it materially, and so — and so — we who had been human, became— Well, it matters less each day. Only — only we had been man and maid!
And day by day the fight is more dreadful, to withstand the hungerlust for the terrible lichen.
-William Hope Hodgson, The Voice in the Night