Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview

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Chapter 23 – The Fish's Tale

Twelve bells tolled out from the clock tower next to the wharf, and on the twelfth Fishmael's head appeared atop the companionway, floating in pipe-smoke and darkness. He inhaled and the ember flared red and angry in the curious long pipe of his, squeeking and popping as it consumed its wicked fuel.

“Make way, blast ye all! I said make way! Man the capstan! Weigh anchor! Think ye not of that cursed land you see to larboard – it stinks! Think ye instead of the mist, glorious mist – like the smoke of purest stone, all-consuming, all-concealing, mist! Hard on the throttle, make that petrel earn its fish! Don't put too much weight on caution, you scoundrels; a ship is at its best with a few scrapes in her hull! Make way there, make way! Don't hoist the Company flag, this is no Company mission! I say, make way!”

Fishmael stormed across the deck, shouting and gesticulating wildly, whipping Jerry and Mungo into action with his words. Jerry was at the wheel whilst Mungo busied himself loosing all the moorings. Stan and Ambrosius stood awkwardly in the middle of the deck, unsure what to do.

“You two there, what are ye, daft? Hoist the mainsail!”

“Err...” said Ambrosius.

“Err..” said Stan.

“Har, har, har,” laughed Mungo as he scurried past. “He's pulling yer legs. We ain't no sail-boat; we don't have no mainsail!”

“You should be thanking me that I didn't tell thee to jump overboard, landlubbers!” shouted Fishmael heartily.

“Very funny,” muttered Stan.

“Funny, y'say?” roared Fishmael. “Then laugh, damn ye, don't mutter under your breath like a jib luffing in the wind. I'll have no muttering aboard this ship, y'hear? Roaring and yelling, but no muttering. Muttering breeds discontent, and I'll have none o' that. What say you?”

“Okay,” said Stan.

“What say you?” Fishmael shouted, throwing foam specks in Stan's direction like a wave crest in a storm.

“I said okay, what more do you want me to say?” asked Stan, annoyed.

“You say 'aye aye, cap'n' if you know what's good for you!”

Stan was silent and his teeth were clenched.

“What say you?”

“Aye aye, cap'n”

“I can't hear you!”

“Aye aye, cap'n!”

“That's better. Now head for the mist gates, Jerry, and lets get out of this stinking landlubber's doss.”

Jerry skilfully piloted the ship out to the harbour gates, which, on Mungo waving a flag at the harbour master, were opened by a mechanism powered by a fish-oil generator controlled by a lever in the harbour master's kiosk. Mist rolled in through the opening as the nameless ship rolled out into the spectral sea. Jerry deftly pulled a rope to tell the petrels to pitch down, forcing the prow of the ship upwards. He then levelled the petrels out which pushed them on a new trajectory up to the top of the mist. The pitch of the boat was then adjusted again in the same way to bring the prow down and carry the ship on a level course over the top of the ocean of fog.

“Cap'n,” called Ambrosius, when their course was set and the frantic air had calmed a little.

“What, lad?” asked Fishmael.

“What are we doing going fishing when there's no more fish?”

Fishmael breathed in sharply. “You mean you've forgotten your oath? You were more enthusiastic than I, last night in the Cannery Arms.”

Ambrosius thought back. He remembered a garbled conversation, then him and Fishmael clasping hands and shaking firmly, after the bloody signing of the contract. “I was drunk,” said Ambrosius.

“Ha, no excuse, laddy. You honestly don't know?”

“No. Nor does Stan.”

“That landlubber?” aksed Fishmael. Stan, whose face was an unnatural shade of green, was stood by the taffrail contemplating being sick.

Ambrosius nodded.

“Then cock an ear in my direction, all hands!”

Stan looked round, but couldn't bring himself to move away from the rail. He met Fishmael's glare and held it for a second to let him know he was listening, then vomit chuntered out of him in an arc that he just managed to get overboard.

“Mungo, Jerry – ye may have heard this before, but I'll announce it to ye again, just so there's no excuse for not knowing why your here.”

The crewmen nodded. “Aye aye, cap'n,” they chorused.

“Then I'll begin,” said Fishmael. “'There was a storm afoot like no other, the night I saw the fish...”

There was a storm afoot like no other, and the mist came in mountainous waves that ran churning over the gunwales, filling the deck with a thick, turbulent fog that reduced visibility to a matter of inches. The ship was a large and beautiful schooner, the best in the Company fleet, painted bright yellow and gleaming in the moonlight.

The sails were reefed tight in a desperate attempt to stop her nosediving down to her doom in the blow, a south-easterly which had come from nowhere in the night and drove her helplessly before it. The wind moaned tortuously in the shrouds and the hull complained with groans and cracks every time they rode out another wave. It was clear to all on board that before long the storm would tear the ship apart – something had to be done quickly. There was no question of lowering the life boats – such small craft would be whirled away to their doom within minutes in the tempest. No, all rational solutions were eliminated. The crew had done all tha t was possible to secure the ship's safety, yet still they were in dire peril. Such a lack of control over perilous circumstances has only one great placebo – superstition. It was to this vain standard that the crew now rallied, the ensign of the Company having been torn from the mast by the hurricane winds and sent flapping into the mist.

How different things had been when the ship had been at anchor, taking on its usual crew of miscreants and desperadoes in the sheltered anchorage of the docklands. The curriculum vitae of the average boarding fisherman read more like a list of allegations levelled in a court of law than anything to be proud of. Yet none of these men thought of themselves as having made any particular offence to Fate – yes, they had stole, romped, smashed, threatened, conned and generally bootlegged their way through life, but in a way they thought of as fair and, criminally speaking, within the rules. None of them were grasses. None of them were wife-beaters. None of them were politicians. Why should Fate baulk at such common sin as these grizzly misfits blundered into?

But there was one among them; one who looked just like them, spoke just like them, swaggered just like them; who was different. This fisherman had engaged in all the usual sins, but had made one fatal mistake in addition. He had, in the bitterness that his misspent life had instilled in him, and, half delirious with a hangover of three days making, demanded of the universe that some meaning be revealed in this wretched life of his. Such a demand was only made by the silent movements of his snarling lips as he lay half-comatose on his palliasse, but it was a demand made nonetheless. It had been early morning, whilst the stars were still out yet the night sky had paled to dawn, and it had seemed a logical thing to do at the time, according to the fuzzy, erratic logic of the toxified brain at such a time in the morning. He had thought it an inconsequential thing afterwards, and he had forgotten it totally as he boarded the ship at midday.

The ship had travelled beautifully for nigh on a week – too beautifully. Such bonny progress could only be a premonition of the perfect storm that was brewing, and the contrast between the amicableness of the first weeks cruising and the sudden psychopathy of the cyclone that struck the ship unawares only served to add to the superstitious misgivings of the sailors on board as the storm heightened.

So it was that the crew gathered around the captain on the 'tween deck, murderous fear in every man's eyes. The captain was a green one, this being his first command, and he stood wan and trembling as each of the rough, seasoned seadogs who comprised his crew shouted in his face.

“We're jinxed, I tell you!” cried the ringleader, making the sign of the fish, to nods of approval from his shipmates.

“R...r...really?” asked the shivering captain.

“Aye, I can smell it in the mist. Fate has brewed this tempest – someone has angered the seas and they are against us!”

Fishmael knew what he had done now. He made his way to the back of the crowd, where he would not be noticed.

“Wh...wh...what can we do?” asked the captain, who in his fear, both of the storm and the mutinous looks in his crews eyes, was willing to do anything the grizzled old salt suggested.

“We must draw lots and find the jinx!”

The captain, though weak, was a rational man. “B...b...but that will fix nothing!” he stammered.

“It will let Fate work her wile,” said another crewman, small and podgy but with muscles like boulders – he alone could tear the captain limb from limb.

“Aye!” chorused the other hands.

“A lot should be cast and then the jinx thrown overboard with a prayer to the old man of the sea,” quoth the ringleader again, eyes wide with fear and fervour.

“But that is b...base paganism,” said the Captain. “I will not stand for it!”

“'Tis not paganism to appease any god who cares,” growled the grizzled mariner, “'tis a direct appeal to the divine. Now run, fetch some lengths o' thin rope from below and let it be done with.”

The captain should have been incensed at a lowly seaman giving him orders, but the cracks of dissent showed his command to be a delicate one, and he had to let it bend or risk shattering it completely. He went below and fetched the lengths of cord, the thin sort used for the tell-tales that showed when a sail was backing onto the wind.

“Now cut one short... that's it. Behind your back now, and mix them up. All hands gather now...”

They formed a line and, one by one, took a length of rope from the captains hand.

“Who has the short straw? Who is the jinx?” There was silence. In the shadows, Fishmael tried to slink away.

“You there, shipmate, where goest thou?” called the ringleader after him. “We find our jinx in the shadows, as could be expected! All hands muster and throw him overboard!”

“You would throw me overboard on the strength of a lot chosen at random? Is that justification enough for you murderous scurvy-dogs?” Fishmael had to bellow above the storm.

“Aye, 'tis more than enough,” said the ringleader. “Now make your peace with your maker, for y"are to see him again shortly!”

The crew mustered and a squid-like mass of brawny hands took hold of Fishmael and, without further ado, threw him over the port side. He did not scream, nor make any sound, but fell with clenched teeth into the night. As soon as the groundward Fishmael hit the mist there was a sudden drop in the wind and the mist took on an oily calmness. Never had the crew of any ship witnessed such a sudden abatement of a storm, and many of them made oaths to repent of their multifarious sins.

Fishmael fell a fathom through the mist, before something soft and wet broke his fall. In a second, the light of the moon was extinguished and a hellish blackness descended upon him. His senses reeled and he toyed with the idea that he was dead.

“Well, if I be dead, I'll need a smoke to help me get my head together for the judgement,” he thought to himself, so he took his pipe and a flint from his inside jacket pocket, stuffed the bowl from his pouch and applied a spark to the contents. A dull red glow emanated from his pipe, providing a dim outline of his surroundings. He saw what looked like a pink punchbag in front of him, behind which was a row of pearly white spikes.

“Cod have mercy on my soul,” breathed Fishmael. “I be in the belly of a giant fish!”

He sat down cross-legged on the floor of the fish's cavity and rested his chin on his hands glumly.

“Surely I am doomed,” he said to himself. “I am being punished for a life of sin by having been eaten by the very fish I would have fain hunted for m'dinner.”

Hours passed, and Fishmael sat and smoked. The cavity filled with an intoxicating smoke, and after a while he lay back on the mucosa beneath him and fell asleep. Thus started a cycle of waking, smoking, then sleeping, which persisted until Fishmael doubted he would ever see the Smug again. A lesser man would have wept, but not Fishmael; he amused himself by levelling ever more inventive curses at the fish. Twenty-eight days had past, and, as usual, Fishmael stood up and roared his abuse.

“I curse ye, fish, above all else on this planet! If ever I escape this stinking, dank pit o' your belly I will surely have my revenge! I will search for ye every waking hour until I find ye and make fish fingers o' ye; I swear on old Bess, on my honour, yea, on my eternal soul, that I will hunt ye down and kill ye. May God damn me if I break my oath!”

There was a great rumble from within the fish, and a peal of thunder that seamed to come from without. Suddenly, a great surge of stinking half-digested krill spurted up from the recesses of the fish's innards and those great white teeth opened, to reveal Xiphias shining down on a shingle beach. Fishmael was carried out in the wave of vomit and left gagging on the shore. As he looked over his shoulder he caught sight of a giant white tail fin disappearing into the fog.

“'Twas only a days walk back to the City, and once there I met up with the crew of that schooner. They looked like they had seen a ghost, and were much afeared once they heard the story of my time in the fish's belly. From that day on men have made the sign of the fish every time they have seen me and I have been shunned as much a phantom might be. The great white Fish of God, the Progenitor! It must have been that legendary fish who I had cursed, and what better a way of getting my revenge on God than seeking the fulfilment of such an oath?

“So this is the purpose of our voyage, shipmates, the purpose that in my darkest hour I asked to be revealed to me. We are united in our quest to find the Fish of God, the Archetype of Fishiness, and heave him back to the City to show everyone that Fishmael is no madman, and that God himself cannot make him kneel!”

“Erm...” said Stan.

“Erm...” said Ambrosius.

“Har, har!” cried Mungo. “Told you that you would be surprised. A merry caper we're in for and no mistake.”

“Do we have any idea where this fish might be?” asked Stan from his position by the taffrail, eyes closed and a look of utter despair making his features incredibly calm.

“Not a clue, matey, not a clue,” cackled Fishmael. “We shall have to sniff him out!”

Stan swallowed back another mouthful of vomit. “Well, I see that you have it all figured out,” he said serenely.

“And I swore an oath on this?” asked Ambrosius.

“Aye, you swore to chase the fish to the ends of the earth with me, your bosom friend.”

“Oh,” said Ambrosius.

“Our voyage will take us well beyond the normal fishing grounds. T'will be a perilous journey, no doubt, but think of the glory!”

“Yes, the glory,” said Ambrosius numbly.

Fishmael turned to where Jerry stood at the helm. “Set a course north by north east and don't spare the petrels!”

The nameless ship planed along the mist, tufts of green-white spraying up to her bowsprit as she plunged through the foggy waves. The light of Xiphias galvanised her, anodised her, bathed her in quicksilver. Even her wake shimmered as the millions of tiny phosphorescent animalcules that inhabited the mist were stirred up by her passing. How like the passing of time was the passing of this demon ship – the ground already covered shimmering out to aft, the course ahead a mystery and dark. Fishmael would change tack erratically, “following my nose,” so he said. And so began the final mission, to find the Infinity Fish of Fate.