by Azrael Tseng
The truth shall set you free. Historical Fiction, Spiritual Fiction & Supernatural (2nd).
|The wild winds skimming over cold-tipped waves whipped Desire Minter’s copper curls about her face as she rowed hard for the shore. The tiny rowboat rocked and rolled even worse than the Mayflower. However she was grateful not to have to put up with the smell of everywhere puke and bodies cramped crammed together, sweating misery and sickness. Already half of the crew and passengers had perished. The rotting bodies released foul fumes to fill a cargo hold swilling with head-swimming, malodorous air that slowly sapped away life rather than sustained it.
Meanwhile the argument raged over whether to tear down the ship’s sails to sew around the dead and throw them overboard or to keep them until the winter thawed for a proper burial on land. The sailors insisted on the former while the Saints pushed for the latter. It all boiled down to whether one considered the Mayflower to be at sea. Desire did not have to look back to know where it anchored within sight of the shore in waters just deep enough so it did not run aground. She had seen enough of it after two months and half a winter spent on board that tossing piece of shaped flotsam.
“But you’ll die out there in this cold!” John Carver had pleaded with her not to leave.
Perhaps she would with only a shawl to fend off winter’s bite. Already the wet tongue of the sea licked her skin. She felt the chilling caress of the wind in her bones as though she was naked instead of clad in thick woollen clothes. Salt spray spat in her face and hardened into frozen pinches, speckling her with tiny brine crystals.
Better to die in the embrace of the earth than stuffed in a coffin shared by a hundred other corpses. she thought. It seemed she would be denied even that small solace when a sudden lurch flung her forward onto her knees. She lost her grip on the oars and huddled at the bottom, too afraid to even reach up and grip the edge.
“Oh God, please deliver me from this watery hell and convey me safely onto the land! Help!” she cried out.
Either God was in wicked humour or some other entity intercepted her prayer for her boat now spun sideways such that the waves caught it broadside in their mad rush to make it to shore before she did. As each passed underneath, they heaved upwards as if trying to toss her and her vessel from one to another. It took them only about a dozen tries before they succeeded. The last words Desire Minter screamed before the Atlantic surged into her open mouth were “Oh Gawww—!” The D never made it out.
The warm breath on her lips smelled of smoke and sweet tobacco. The sea no longer roared and crashed madly inside her head but instead whispered soothing psalms from a distance. Something brushed across her right nipple and she realised with shock that her bosom lay bare to the grey predawn-sketched sky. Pushing herself up, her elbows and palms protested as coarse beach sand bit painfully into them.
The abandoned coastline looked back at her, empty except for driftwood and debris washed ashore. Even though she saw not a single soul around, she pulled the edges of her bodice to cover herself. Judging by the tear in the garment right down the middle all the way to the waist, someone had ripped it apart purposefully. This someone had also left a trail of footprints on the sand that led away towards the dark beneath the snow-topped trees. She caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure and called out. However it disappeared without looking back.
Whoever that was had saved her life, she had no doubt about that. And if she was to survive out here with no supplies and no dry clothes, she would need help. She recited a prayer giving thanks to God as she got up swaying on legs still used to the sea. When the world stopped swimming around her, she followed the footprints.
They led her to the ruins of a deserted settlement. Empty huts clustered around a tall wooden pillar split in two — by lightning, she guessed from the blackened scar. Strange and hideous faces adorned both fragments, with many bestial and animal-like. God must have struck and destroyed this idol for pagan worshippers and so terrified the natives they had all fled. All but one.
He stood so still, so straight beside the fragment still upright she almost mistook him for another idolatrous statue. She had heard stories about the natives before but had never set eyes on one until then. Black hair fell in swathes across broad bare shoulders but no stubble or beard clung to his face. His complexion reminded her of Iberian sailors she had sometimes seen working the docks of Plymouth. Little about his manner suggested any of the savagery tavern tales often conjured up and he carried no weapons. Only the plain fact that he wore nothing but his own skin inflicted some mild embarrassment on her. Yet at that moment she felt so relieved to find another living being she could have hugged him naked.
“God bless you, good sir. My name is Desire Minter, a Saint from Leyden under the charge of Master John Carver. May I be so bold as to ask if you were by the shore earlier?”
As the figure stepped forward into the wan light, Desire averted her eyes. They had caught a glimpse of an impressive private part, making her breath catch in her chest and flutter about like a hummingbird trapped in a cold cage of ice. She immediately felt ashamed. Her thoughts lingered in a vicinity she knew God would not be pleased to find them loitering.
“Will you not clothe yourself, sir?” she cast her request.
His voice trembled with a soul-lifting quality she had only heard a few times in her life, such as when God had brought her to the performance of a particularly excellent church choir. “Why would I defile what God has clothed me in with the weavings of men or the dead skins of slaughtered beasts? Such poor creatures to be placed under the care of those who brought the knife to them instead.”
Eyes still cast on the ground by her bare feet, Desire asked, “May I know your name, sir?”
He answered, “I'm known by many different names but you may call me Zaleos.”
“Master Zaleos—“ she began.
“Just Zaleos,” he insisted. “I’m master of none now.”
“Did you save me from drowning down by the beach?” she asked.
He smiled, revealing beautiful straight teeth that only seemed whiter against his dark skin. “I heard you cry out to Him as the waves swept you away. The one who flies on dark wings came for you but I said to him, ‘Brother, have you not claimed enough lives from that ship? Will you not show mercy to this one, so young and yet so brave to strike out on her own with only a prayer in her heart to warm and guide her?’
And he told me this, ‘Her kind betrayed your people and drove them from their homes, repaying kindness and hospitality with cunning knives in the back. Yet you would have me grant them mercy?’
‘The sins of her kin and kind are not hers to bear. She’ll face no judgement for them, not from Him and certainly not from me,’ I rebuked him.
He argued, ‘They’ll come for her, and those that leave the ship will people these lands that once fed yours. Let the sea claim her, and they’ll not last another winter.’
But I swam out and tore you from the ocean’s maw, put breath between your lips and pushed water out from your chest.”
Desire swallowed and said, “So you did save me. I owe you my life.”
Again Zaleos smiled and fanned the flutterings of her heart. “I did not put the wings of life into you only to chain its feet into my service. You owe me nothing.”
She cried, “May God bless you and your children for your kindness. I cannot thank you enough and yet I must beseech you further — you said the people on the ship will not last another winter. Why?”
“They cannot survive if the seeds and grains they brought with them will not grow. This is a harsh land, and they’ve no one to teach them its ways. Not when murder and greed walk with them,” he stated simply.
Desire fell to her knees and pleaded. “Please, sir, there are good people on that ship. Master Carver and his family have been nothing but kind to me, providing for me after Father died. And Captain Jones — he didn’t have to take on Speedwell’s passengers but he did. He conveyed us all safely across the vast Atlantic. Will you do nothing to help them the way you helped me?”
Before Zaleos could respond, a cross between a howl and a growl sprang up from somewhere nearby. Similar sounds echoed in reply, each growing louder and more sinister in intent. Desire cowered in fear. She had never heard any animal make such cries before, such was the malevolence that clearly emanated. What stalked out from the forest terrified her into breathless silence. They crept on all fours at first but then lifted themselves with spastic jerking movements onto rear haunches like men. Formed of smoke and shadows, they had eyes but no faces. Those eyes gleamed with dark intent and a bottomless hunger that could never be satisfied. They fixed right on her.
A scream caught in her throat and froze into a lump.
You are ours. Your time is past. Their voices crawled into her mind without ever touching the air between them.
“No, she’s mine,” Zaleos said and stepped in front of her.
“By the blood of He we know too well has she been cleansed; she owes nothing and no one but whom she chooses to commit herself to.”
You dare invoke Him!
“His presence manifests in everything around us, with or without invocation.”
Do you think we fear Him now? He’s grown feeble, devoured from within by complacency and corruption…
Zaleos shuddered as if struck. He stayed very still but seemed to grow in her mind. The ground disappeared, followed by the trees and then the sky, until nothing else existed within but him. Inside that horrifying darkness a single note of music not of this world sang, sad and alone. She wept. Whether the darkness was within her or she in the darkness, she could not tell. When it faded, the shadow creatures had vanished.
“They’ll return,” Zaleos said.
Desire did not care. “What are you?” she asked, voice tremulous, even though she knew. His breath lingered within her and she had been inside him, perhaps even been a part of him. She had seen his very core and essence; she was Moses at the burning bush. Awe and terror overflowed from her frail form, transmuted as tears.
“You’re Forgiven; not I.”
“Why? You’re good — you saved me!” she protested.
“Good… evil — they’re simply sides of the same coin. Is one side worth more than the other? You should ask Him in your prayers tonight.” Zaleos walked towards the tree perimeter.
“Where are you going?” Desire called after him.
“Away from here… south to where they speak a different tongue. Mēxihco.”
On impulse, she ran after him and at her touch he froze.
“Your people will come to look for you. You should go.”
Her breath grew heavy. “I don’t want to. I’ve seen you in your darkness; I don’t want you to be alone anymore.”
“We are from different worlds. You are in His embrace; I am not.”
“Yet you desire His embrace,” she said.
At those words his flesh dissipated into smoke and her hand grasped nothing. She heard a bitter, ironic laugh but could not tell where it came from. The surrounding woods stood deserted, empty like the huts.
“I won’t let you go,” she cried out loud. Having been touched, she could never be the same again. Southwards she chased and never looked back.
P.S. A passenger on the Mayflower, Desire Minter’s name did not appear in the 1623 Division of Land at Plymouth and is assumed to have sailed back to England. However no records have ever been found of her there. She simply disappeared.
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