Not every tale told by an old sailor is a tall one . . .
|This is from an anthology titled Southern Steam, a project of a steampunk writer's group called Scribblers' Den, and takes place, as all the stories do, in Port Reprieve, a fictional city on the southeast shore of Mobile Bay. I share this here as a sample of my own writing, but also to serve as an advertisement for the anthology. The authors contributing to this work are well-known to me as some of the most talented writers in the field of steampunk today, and anyone with an interest in that genre, as well as action, horror, or the supernatural, would do well to add this to their wish-list. I will advise the membership when it goes on sale, but in the meantime, please take a half-hour's respite and enjoy a darkly-shaded Sea Story.
"You don't believe they're real, do ye, boy?"
The old mariner fixed me with the stem of his corncob pipe as his steel-gray eyes challenged me to challenge him.
"No, Dutch, that's not it," I back-peddled, mind racing for a statement that would make my last comment sound like something other than what it was. "It's just, well, there's so many stories that you old salts tell, it's impossible to sort out which are true, and which are made up to frighten the tadpoles."
"Dutch" Hanika had an unpronounceable first name, and swore he wasn't German. I could swear he had been at sea for longer than my mother had been a woman, and he had more stories than a leap-year had hours. Most of them were understood to be so much bilge water, tales endlessly repeated by salts the world over to widen the eyes of the fresh-faced tadpoles, but this one started out so outrageous that I had made the mistake of turning to the other "snipe," my fellow engineering trainee, and muttering, "Oh, for God's sake!"
Mitchiko Sanyo's eyes had given me my only warning, widening in astonishment as her mouth fell open. Well, not exactly true. When Dutch stopped his story in mid-word, that was a warning all its own. The clatter and clang of S.S. Dragon's engine room faded to inaudibility as the old man stared me down. Then his visage softened.
"Ah, I get it, boy, I do. It sounds incredible, but I seen three of 'em with me own eyes, an' I knows a dozen sailors what's all seen 'em, too, an' their stories are all the same. The first one I seen was off Rota in the Marianas back in, oh, must 'a been the summer of '67. I weren't more than a little snipe like you two then, earning my wrenches on the S.S. Rhineland. Engines wasn't reliable like they is now."
He punctuated his point by patting the asbestos-wrapped steam line that ran above his head.
"Motor vessels carried full complements o' sail for when the engine broke down, an' that meant a full complement o' sailors to handle 'em. Well, a hundred fifty sailors drink a lot o' water, an' that's on top o' what the engine puts down, so we had to make a water stop. Usually, you'd do that on Guam, but there'd been an incident with a French frigate an' a pretty native girl. Some o' the crew got frisky an' did things to that girl that they'd not likely tell their mothers about, an' as luck would have it, she had seven big brothers, an' when I say big, well, either o' you ever seen a Chamorro?"
I had to admit I hadn't.
"I have," Mitchiko allowed.
"Well, then, you know how big them boys can get, and they all carry a machete. Married to 'em, like a Japper and his sword, no offense."
Mitchiko, "Kiko," a diminutive Japanese girl who claimed to have distant cousins in the royal family, fixed Dutch with a stare of her own.
"Well, no matter, I didn't mean nothin'. Anyway, all these brothers went lookin' for the Frenchmen who'd did the deed, as it were, but they'd sailed already. The brothers didn't care about that. If they couldn't get one bunch o' sailors, they'd settle for another, and when the Australian barque Woomera made port a week later, they grabbed a liberty party, hauled 'em up to Two Lovers Point, that's a four hundred-foot cliff up on the north side of the island, castrated 'em, and chucked 'em off. Well, this weren't a month before we put in, and as ye might imagine, we weren't for bein' given the same treatment, so the cap'n dropped anchor off Rota just south of the main island, and rowed a gang o' sailors ashore with casks to fill up from the river. Since I weren't a sailor, but an engineer, see, I didn't have to go on the workin' party, but I had to keep a lookout, so I manned the poop back aft, keepin' watch on the island. Well, that were when I seen it, clear as day in the middle o' the night."
"What did you see?" I asked when he paused.
"Its eye," he replied, drawing the word "eye" out menacingly. "Hydras got eyes the size o' portholes, and they're ringed with, what'cha call 'em, luminositous lights. They glow in the dark, like the wake sometimes, only it's a big, round circle."
He held up his hands to indicate a circle a yard across.
"Pitch black in the middle where the pupil is. Looks like ye' could jump right in and go down for miles. 'Course, if ye did, the only thing ye'd be goin' down is the monster's gullet!"
"Well, what happened, Dutch?" I asked anxiously.
"Nothin', that time. It just stared at us for a bit, me an' the second mate, then sank down into the deep. Weren't hungry, I guess. Eerie as hell, though, I can tell you! Second time, we was anchored off Perka in the Andamans. There to load copra, see? They was bringin' it out in boats, an' a tentacle rose up outta the water an' grabbed an oarsman right outta one o' the boats. Just, phttttt, gone!"
He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
"Thing took 'im deep, an' we never saw neither one of 'em again. Third time was on the liner Caroline, crossin' from Dublin to Boston. One o' the damned things followed us for two days."
"Doing what?" Kiko asked skeptically.
"Migratin' would be my guess. Just a guess, though. The monster followed us for five hundred miles before it disappeared. Folk I've talked to feel like it lives deep down at the bottom of underwater cliffs, prob'ly in nice cushy caves, an' what I seen seems to bear that out. A whole lot o' those cliffs rise into islands, or even coastlines, an’ that makes humans a natural part o' their diet. Hell of a way to go, I'm guessin'!"
* * *
We were rounding the hump of South America at the time, hauling a load of plantains from Florianopolis to the big Confederate seaport of Port Reprieve, and in all the hard work of keeping the engines humming, and learning as I did so, I wrote off the old engineer's sea story as so much bilge water not worth remembering. Sailors were famous for ribbing the tadpoles, and in my first two months aboard, I had been sent on pointless wild goose chases for everything from inert gas to order wire, as had Kiko. When I called his bluff rather than spend a night on the foc'sle waiting to spring a sea bat trap, he sulked for a week. After that, I just humored him, even spending a day on the yardarm watching for a mail boat that we both knew didn't exist.
We tied up at the Port Reprieve docks in late spring that first time. Muggy as hell, the weather was, but the nights were still cool and fresh, and my mates and I had a wonderful time.
It was my first visit to the big harbor, rival to Charleston as the Queen of the South, and I finally got to see with my own eyes what my fellow sailors could scarce find words to describe. The city stretched for miles along the eastern shore of the bay, divided roughly in half by a small river with some modest heights to the north, and lowlands to the south. The officers warned us about the rampant crime conducted almost as legitimate business in the booze palaces and fleshpots south of the river, and armed with this knowledge, we all set out to explore this brick-and-mortar jungle.
We found much relaxation after our weeks at sea. The drinkers found release in their beloved alcohol, and I found release in the arms of Lily, a tall, striking French girl from the Red Lotus. Over the course of a couple of days, we got our plantains unloaded, several hundred bales of cotton stowed aboard, and riding low in the water, we set course for Liverpool refreshed, rejuvenated, and in my own case, with a new favorite port of call.
From Liverpool, we moved textiles to Cherbourg, ceramics to Bremen, and farm machinery to Bilbao. We returned to the New World by way of Boston, then spent six dreadful weeks hauling general goods between east coast ports a day or less apart, so autumn was in full swing by the time we returned to Port Reprieve, and the weather was considerably more civilized.
Kiko and I had earned our wrenches during the European cruise, and were full-fledged snipes now, certified marine engineers, albeit still very junior. Dutch’s horror stories were long forgotten, and we were beginning to acquire some of our own, though we were still very much at the bottom of the ladder with no one to lord it over. I had feared that Lily would have forgotten me in my absence, but like all good members of her profession, she recognized me the second I opened the door.
“Kevin Garrison, or do my eyes deceive me!” she shouted with a wide smile as I entered the house’s parlor. “I was beginning to think old Neptune had called you home!”
“Not without seeing my favorite girl first,” was my reply, stepping into her for an embrace.
“Wait yer turn, lad,” a bearded bruiser in a Confederate Navy uniform growled, rising to his feet, fists clenching.
“You’ll be waiting yours, Bosun Miller, if you ever want to darken our door again,” Suki, the floor manager told him without looking up from her desk in the corner.
“I’ve paid for her,” the man said menacingly.
“You’ve paid for a girl,” Suki retorted, looking up now and fingering a jewel-handled letter opener, “and you shall have one. Here at the Red Lotus, the girls are involved in the choosing, and it would seem that Lily has chosen otherwise.”
The big man glared at Suki for a moment, then Lily, then back to Suki while he settled on a course of action.
“What’re you gonna do, then, foist off some pox-ridden doxie on me?”
“We don’t employ pox-ridden doxies, Bosun. There are four girls in this room awaiting customers. Circulate and get to know them. Perhaps one will be to your liking. Unless, of course, Lily’s young friend isn’t here to pay?” she added, looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
“No, I’m paying,” I said, keeping a wary eye on the big reb, and stepped forward to pay her per-hour rate of ten dollars Confederate, about six Federal.
We repaired to her third-story room with its narrow but charming view of the harbor for an hour in paradise, at least by my lights. I cannot know what Lily thought of it, but she made me feel as though I were the only man in the world for that hour, and if it was an act, it was a good one. It wasn’t love and we both knew it, and our parting was as that of friends, lacking the poignancy of lovers, but I left her boudoir feeling special and important, and that, at least, was no illusion.
In this somewhat euphoric mood, I made my way from the Red Lotus a few blocks west to The Anchorage, a pub where I knew that some of the Dragon’s crew gathered for grog and games of chance, and wasn’t disappointed to find a group gathered around two tables pulled close together. Three or four of them had a drink tray in which they were rolling a pair of dice at the far end, and the drinkers raised their tankards to me as I approached.
“Garrison!” they shouted in unison, then one of the bosun’s mates turned to the others and bellowed, “What say ye, lads, is there room for another snipe at our table?”
“Aye,” called another, “he may have a redeeming feature we can use!”
“Or money,” another shouted, and amid the laughter, two of them scooted their chairs apart, pulling one over from a table nearby.
“Where ye been, lad?” someone asked as I took the offered seat.
“The Red Lotus,” I quipped. “Had to see my true love.”
This didn’t produce the guffaws I’d expected, and it was only a second until I understood why; the significance of another snipe had been lost on me until Kiko leaned forward from behind a burly sailor.
“Amazing how so many people can’t see what’s right in front of them,” she said in barely audible tones.
“Kiko,” I blurted in surprise. “How are you?”
But she turned away and started a conversation with one of the bone-rollers.
I could see she was hurt by something I had done, and it certainly threw a damper on the rest of my evening. I would have asked her what my transgression was, but she pointedly remained engaged in conversation with one or another of the other sailors throughout the evening. Even when we returned to the Dragon, walking in a large group for safety, she made a point of staying on the opposite side of the mass of men.
Dutch had the gangway watch when we came aboard. He pulled Kiko and me aside.
“You two best turn in early and get a good night’s sleep. I’m afraid I got a crap job for ye tomorrow, an’ I’ll want ye at your best.”
With that warning echoing in my already muddled brain, I slept no better than one might expect, and awoke after a poor night of fitful naps with a dull ache surrounding my eyes in a sort of low-key throbbing that made everything else a trial.
An uninteresting breakfast was consumed without interest, and I made my way to the port quarter where we half-dozen engineers held our morning meeting. Dutch wasted no time in dropping the good news.
“Sanyo and Garrison,” he said with sadistic glee, “you’ll be scalin’ the port condenser coil today. Equipment’s waitin’ in the gear locker. Cameron, Davis you’ll be . . .”
I didn’t have the interest to listen further. We were scheduled for nine days in Port Reprieve, as we needed some scheduled maintenance, and the yard there was highly rated. But some things a ship was expected to do for itself, and removing crystalized salt from her outside fittings was one of them. Some of these tasks were dirty and somewhat dangerous, and thus done by the most junior personnel. Tasks such as cleaning the salt crystals from the condensation coils.
What this assignment meant was that I would be spending the entire day on a platform hung over the side, working alongside a girl who had spent the entire previous evening making me feel like something she would have to scrape off her shoe. I wondered whether she would even raise the alarm if I went into the bay.
This would be the final cherry on top of the whole discouraging affair.
Arriving at the gear locker, I made to pick up and carry all of it, but she snatched the bucket of wire brushes and the coil of rope from my hands, leaving me with the duffel bag full of chemicals, scraping irons, and chipping hammers. Wordlessly making our way to the main deck, we lowered our gear on ropes, then slid down the stays to the work platform, essentially a plank twelve inches wide and twelve feet long, suspended beneath the large finned pipe of the condenser.
Still without speaking, we set to work with chippers, scrapers, wire brushes, and knives, knocking off and brushing away the built-up sea salt that insulated the condenser and ruined its efficiency. The whole morning went by without a word being spoken between us. We finished a section and called up to the deck hands who untied one end of the platform and pivoted it around one end, essentially moving it its twelve-foot length up the hull so we could attack the next section. I was aching to converse with her but wouldn't deign to begin a conversation. I was, after all, the injured party, and for me to offer amends would hardly be proper, but by the time eight bells were sounded, it was obvious that any conversation we might have would have to be instigated by me.
Shortly, Cookie arrived at the rail and lowered our mid-day meal in a bucket. As we sat down on the platform, feet dangling inches over the water, I dipped my toes into that other water between us.
“Cookie put a lot of meat in these sandwiches,” I offered, trying to be as innocuous as possible.
“What is this, ham?”
Still no answer.
“Kiko,” I said, hoping she would turn toward me, at least.
“Kiko, are you eventually going to tell me what I’ve done?”
“What makes you think you’ve done anything?” she almost whispered.
“The fact that we were friends until last night suggests that something may be amiss.”
“It’s me. Don’t worry about it.”
She hadn’t looked at me yet.
“It’s you?” I was incredulous at that assertion. “I’m not mad at you. If it was you, I’d tell you.”
“All right, it’s you.”
She finally turned to look at me, and I almost wished she hadn’t.
“We come into port, a bunch of us go out for a good time, but you feel the need to visit a whorehouse. Honestly, that’s your priority?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it would matter to you. It isn’t like we’re seeing each other.”
“Do we have to be?”
“Kiko, men have . . . Well, we have needs that women don’t share.”
“Really? Six men went to the pub with me last night. They didn’t have any ‘needs’ that kept them away.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking into her beautiful brown eyes. “Had I known it mattered to you, I might have behaved differently.”
“It doesn’t,” she said, putting the paper from her sandwich in the food pail, and taking a scraper from the work bucket as she turned away.”
“You two lovebirds better pick up the pace down there,” Dutch’s voice bellowed from the rail. “It’s a long time ’til dark!”
“Just wrapping up, Dutch,” I called back, stripping the paper from the butt end of my sandwich and cramming the whole thing in my mouth.
As the lunch pail was drawn up to the deck, I set to work with a wire brush, keeping to my end of the platform. I didn’t want to alienate her further, but my mind raced, seeking some way to restore my friendship with a girl I suddenly realized that I hardly knew at all.
Thus was my mind occupied when the shape slid by underneath me. My eyes focused on a particularly stubborn bit of crystallization, thoughts a million miles away, the round, black pool of nothing had already passed beneath me when conscious mind and memory came to focus. I spun suddenly, almost toppling over, and dropping my brush into the water.
“Kiko!” I had time to shout.
She had just raised her head to look at me when a mottled, rubbery, dark gray appendage rose from the water and wrapped around her leg from ankle to thigh. Her eyes grew huge as a second emerged to wrap twice around her waist. She dropped her tool and seized the rope holding the platform to the ship, but her grip was as nothing against that of the monster. One yank, and she was gone with barely time to scream.
* * *
It’s her eyes that haunt me still. I’ve played it over in my mind a thousand times, asking what I could have done to save her, but of course, had Verne’s mythical harpooner Ned Land been standing in my place, lance at the ready, he could have done nothing more. It was too quick for the puny strength of any human to intervene.
That knowledge doesn’t prevent me from seeing her eyes. Every time I close mine, there are hers, wide, beseeching, so full of life and wanting to live, and I could do nothing. Nothing. Was she trying to express feelings for me? I have to believe she was. Why else would it have bothered her? I’ll never know now.
I haven’t gone back to sea, and I never will. My training in the workings of steam power have enabled me to sign on as an apprentice with the railroad that runs from Port Reprieve through Pensacola and Savannah to Charleston. All of those are ports, and far too close to the water to suit me; the thing came in out of the depths of the Gulf, after all, to take her in the shallow water of the bay. I’ll be transferring to the line that runs up to Nashville as soon as an opening becomes available.
I can’t be near the water, you see. I won’t. Every time I look at it, all I can see are her beautiful, terrified eyes.