Lost at sea, is rescue always the best option?
|I had been on board the Queen Cherry for three, horrendous days. From the tip of the bowsprit to the rudder the whole ship stank. She had been a whaler, there was a harpoon gun mounted forrard and narrow, sleek whaleboats hung from davits on port and starboard. Balleen knives were stowed amidships, ready to dissect the captured whale. Below decks, giant coppers stood ready to boil down blubber to extract oil.
The Queen Cherry was a three masted barque, the foremast and main square rigged and a mizzen rigged fire-and-aft. They could hang four spritsails from the bowsprit that pointed the way like a rapier. Her hull was the best of steel, painted black with a single red line just below the scuppers. And she was cold, so bitter frozen that skin would stick to metal. If you had any skin.
I had come aboard her by accident. I did not belong there. I had signed on in Nantucket on the Pride of the South, a whaler heading for Maui, hunting the Right Whales for their blubber and balleen. It had been an ill-fated voyage, we lost a crew when a fluke slapped down on their whaleboat. There was nothing left except matchwood and bodies. Against my will, I was put to the oar on whaleboat Ginnie with Ianto Griffiths as harpoon man. And a damned good one too. His cast was true and we had a wild Nantucket Sleigh Ride as the whale tried to escape his fate.
That is when I fell overboard and was lost. I gasped with the shock as I went in to the black waters, sucking in bitter salt water, choking as I flailed my arms to survive. My oilskins trapped air and up I bobbed, looking all about for the whale, the Ginnie, the Pride. All I could see was the chop of waves, crowned with white horses. I was going to drown. If I did not die of the cold before. I thrashed my arms. I yelled through a hoarse throat. I cursed. I prayed. Until I stopped. And looked up into the sky where thousands of diamonds looked down on me.
Into this calmness came a noise. A familiar sound. Rigging creaking in blocks. The slap of idle sails. The chuckling curl of water being parted by a stem post. Then shouts. The splash of a cork ring thrown from above. A dark shadow looming above. I do not know how my numb arms worked themselves into the lifebuoy. All I remember was the agony as it drew tight around my chest. Unable to breathe, I was dragged along as the ship made headway. Sea was forced down my lungs. I passed out.
When I came round I was flat on my back on a grating. Even through my icy nostrils I could smell the familiar whaler stench, stronger than it had ever been on the Pride. There was some sort of argument going on, but my teeth were chattering so fast that I could not distinguish the words. Someone yanked me to a sitting position and held a tankard to my lips. I thought I smelt rum, it tasted as rum. At first it fired me as rum then my blood turned to ice and I was gone again. In my nightmare, before the darkness claimed me, I thought the grin on the sailor's mouth had no lips around it.
Still colder than a grave, I came to again. It was not yet night, nor was it day. It seemed as if a chill sea fog had taken up residence in the spars, it dripped oily drops from the standing rigging, it beaded the wooden heaving tackle, it slithered tracks down belaying pins. It muffled all sounds to echoing whispers. A bulk of a man strode across the deck towards me, his seaboots that should have thudded were no louder than a cat's paw.
'Thee don't belong here, laddie.' He could have been Scots, or Canadian. 'We oughter throw thee back.' My eyes travelled up from his knee-high boots, to the hem of his sea coat, one of the old fashioned ones, long and fastened across with a thick belt. A cutlass, almost identical to the one my grandfather had carried as a Naval Captain dangled to one side. He even wore an officer's hat, wide and high, fixed with an aigrette*. Then, and only then, did I look to his face. My words of thanks died before they left my lips.
There was no face. Only the bare bones of what had once been human.
'Thee don't belong here, laddie.' He, it?, repeated. 'Thee ain't no whale to be stripped, there be no fat on thy bones.' How can a skull grin when it has no flesh? 'And precious little meat neither.' One by one the crew gathered around with that silent deftness that I came to know. It seemed to me that they formed out of the grey mist and melted back into it as they turned away.
'Keep him, Cap'n.' It was no more than a hissing whisper. 'Three days. That be the Law.' After a silence that was more hours than minutes, the captain gave a curt nod and turned on his heel.
Only three days. Are the days in hell longer than on our earthly plane? Each ragged breath I sucked into my screaming lungs told me that I get lived. I dragged my complaining body from stem to stern, looking for a way to escape. The davits were seized and would not move, even if I would be unobserved as I tried to lower a boat. There were no spare timbers to cast over the side, even if I dared to challenge the seas again. Worse, there was no food to be had on deck, nor yet fresh water. I had no courage to go below, for if I did, I feared I would loose the last tatters of skin and flesh that were left to me.
It was on the third day that I, fainting from hunger, with a mouth that was glued shut by its lack of spittal, saw a vision in the distance. I could not cry out but raised a quivering hand to point. A barque. Three masted. It had to be the Pride of the South. Some of the crew peered across the ocean. But it was only too clear that no one but me could see the ship shimmering on the horizon.
Minute by gasping minute, it drew closer. Not the Pride, but her near twin, a vessel from the same builder. I could see crew labouring on board, processing their last haul. Smoke and oil stink drifted across, the coppers had the fires lit beneath them. I tried to shout, 'Ahoy!' But my lips would not part. It was then the madness of desperation filled my heart. I staggered to the gunnals and dropped myself back into the vicious mercy of the sea.
It was as before. Gasping with cold, I near drowned as my air-filled oilskins kept me barely afloat. I tried to thrash my arms, to swim the distance but could only manage a feeble flapping. In too short a time I could do no more than float. It was then, for a second time, a cork ring, with a hawser tied about it, splashed next to me. Again, the air was crushed from my lungs as I was hailed aboard and I lost my senses as I was flopped on to the deck.
Too weak to do anything except lie prone, my eyes perceived a sailor, dressed as a modern bosun, stride from the wheel towards me. In his hand, a tankard that steamed with an amazing, appetising, fragrance. He knelt beside me and held it to my lips. Raising my eyes to his, I wanted to thank my saviour from the depths of my chastised soul. I could not form the words.
There were no eyes in the sockets of his skull.
*aigrette: feather plume on a hat.