Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview
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Chapter 29 - Sargasso
A ship is an island of life. Barnacles cling to her hull, along with bearded kelp and weed. Worms slowly eat into her wood, it being their bolt-hole garden of Edam. Shrieker birds circle overhead and settle on the rigging, glad of a rest after flying for long hours over their sushimi-bar sea. Rats eat her biscuit and sleep amongst he r bilge. And then those great barnacles, those wily worms, those avian overlords, those artful rats, those Piscadors; they live too on their mobile continent, federated along one keel, to steal a good phrase. So it almost seems out of place, an anachronism even, to have this happy island nation ruled over by a despot such as Fishmael. His tot of rum fills a whole pint pot, his herring is cut thick and unfairly chunky, his privacy commands utmost respect, as does his attendance when he calls for it. And his madness, aye, his madness seems almost to be a self-awarded medal, worn in that fashion so beloved of dictators. Bright and gleaming, pure gold, the alchemy of insanity works its magic on this dubious accolade, almost giving it the appearance of nobility. For it must be said that a man unsure commands no respect, yet a man certain can lead an army, and the ability to lead is often mistaken as nobility. What does 'noble' mean? Is it honour or elevation by which we choose to define this word? Perhaps Fishmael is very noble, very elevated, almost as high as a Stylite, only much more comfortable. After all, men like Fishmael stand on their pedestals too, and we all look up and see them. This craning of the neck is often perceived as admiration.
So, up-lookers, look down, down slumped at the ship's table where Fishmael sits drunk as a lord. He is alone now, everyone else having gone on deck to go about their duties (or, in the case of Stan and Ambrosius, to escape the dark presence of the captain). He mutters to himself.
“...would eat me? Nay, not again. I would turn its stomach sour. No, the fish will be my dish, not the other way round. Then why do I feel foolish, foolish and hunted? I feel as if I am being hunted by my own heart, that is it. How can a hunting troop stand if its members are divided? In the same way how can my soul stand divvied up between my demons? It is as if a pirate worm has taken over me, climbed over the bulwarks of my soul and commandeered me. Parts of me recoil at my goal, yet parts delight. Aye there are even parts of me that delight at my recoiling!
“'Tis not right to have so many facets; I am not a stone, no amount of polishing will make me sparkle. I long to unite all these disparate threads that fray inside me, but the only cord I can see that unifies them seems to be a noose, and that is not for me. I doubt that in death I would sleep restless – I would forever be turning in my grave at the dead comprehension of my failure to weigh in that fish. I hate that fish! But I am becoming repetitive. Is there anything else I feel towards that overgrown halibut? Its progeny have sustained me and the rest of this planet for cod knows how long, after all. Is there respect there? Gratefulness? I accept that the fish is a mighty beast, well-formed, aesthetically perfect – a true Vitruvian fish, no less. I can admire it as I would admire a mountain, or the Smug, or Xiphias, or some distant star. But get up close, where I could smell the rotting krill, that stench that I spent so long inhaling... aye it is the stench that is the worst! Things are so often beautiful until y'get a whiff of their body odour. If a mountain sweated, if a star farted, if a rose belched – would we be able to look at them the same afterwards? I think 'tis true that the passion is gone from any relationship when one of the couple feels comfortable breaking wind in front of the other. And, with this fish, Nature has farted in my face! Yes, I hate that fish, I hate that fish...”
Call it soliloquy, call it raving, call it what you like – the captain muttered on and drank by himself until morning was close, whereupon, before the Smug had a chance to peep at him over the horizon, he slunk off again to his chambers to try and snatch some sleep. The nightmares came as soon as his head touched the pillow – before he was asleep even. He lay watching the wooden planks of his ceiling morph and warp, and, like some jaded ex-hippy struck with the repercussions of his ergotism, his fancy cast the planks into the shape of his nightmare quarry. A ghastly mobile this: a fish, mouth agape, ever advancing to consume, never reaching. Those eyes that could see for a million miles, they stared at Fishmael, into Fishmael, through Fishmael. He had no secrets from this fish, no psychological defences, for she was as much a part of him as he had been a part of her for that foetid, gastric month. And then, as sleep came over him, he was paralysed. He would try and move his arms or legs, but could only raise them and inch or so of his bed. Pinned invisibly thus, like some dark butterfly in a collection, the fish would start talking to him. The thing that distressed him the most about this was the relentless amicableness of his enemy.
“Hiya! Hows it going Fishmael, the big F, the Fishmaester, old boy? It's certa inly been nice weather recently. How are you?”
“Curses on ye, ye vile sturgeon!”
“Haha, whatever mate. You been up to much?”
“Not much then. Me neither. I flolloped a bit yesterday, saw a few sea-cucumbers congregating in the shallows, the tykes. It's the Smug that's brought them out.”
“A pox on ye, ye abomination!”
“Okay, a bit of banter there, very good. I love banter, it's so joyful! Hey, I'll tell you what, I hope you like krill as much as me. Now that all my mates are dead you'll have as much lovely krill as you can eat. The seas will be full of the stuff! Mm, mouthwatering, tasty krill.”
“Shut up! Shut up! I'm going to catch you and then you'll be sorry!”
“Sorry? I'm never sorry about anything, only joyful. Where are you going on your holidays this year? I'm thinking of swimming out to this little archipelago a couple of hundred miles east of here. Their reefs are fantastic apparently. You want to come too?”
“Guess that's a no. Well, I'll have fun all by myself. You know, normally I take a few of my best buddies along with me but they're all dead now. Still, you've got to look on the bright side – at least all the Smug-lounging spots will be free! In fact, hey, I prefer places when they're less touristy, nice and quiet. Don't you?”
“Die, ye scurvy sea-dog!”
“Sea-dog? I saw one of them once. Quite a nice species actually, although he did try to eat me. Can't bare a grudge though, I am absolutely delicious, to blow my own trumpet a bit. Hey, if I was him I'd try to eat me too.”
“Silence, ye infernal beastie! You'll be spouting black blood as soon as I...”
And so on. Fishmael spent every night locked in the same excruciating fantasy.
He would wake exhausted and bathed in sweat, his muscles aching from where he had been trying to break out of his paralysis and lunge at the fish. The more agreeable the fish was, the more livid Fishmael became; livid and determined to mete a terrible fate on this indomitable ichthyian.
So the days passed with Fishmael below in the murky world of his bunk with this nightmare on repeat, and by nights he emerged into the silver-tainted air, full of fresh hatred. Months went by in this fashion; Mungo, Ambrosius and Stan taking turns in the crow's nest, Jerry at the wheel. When they were not aloft Ambrosius and Stan also helped out by performing various duties such as swabbing the deck, taking soundings, feeding the petrels and, at Fishmael's insistence, sharpening the harpoons every twelve hours.
Life aboard was pretty monotonous, the tot of rum at smugdown being the only highlight. Some nights, when Xiphias was full and fat, Fishmael would have them release a buoy on a rope to stern and urge them to practice darting harpoons at it. Surprisingly, Ambrosius seemed the most adept at the harpooning – something which he put down to his endless hopeful re-casts as a young fisher.
“Ye be our lead harpooner, lad,” Fishmael told him one moonful night. “'Tis a great honour. Just make sure ye only weaken the fish, though. I will have the kill.”
They sailed on. They were well beyond the normal reach of fishing expeditions when increasingly they started seeing patches of weed floating in the mist, held buoyant by nodular bladders that lined the fronds, giving them an obscene, bulbous appearance. At first the crew thought no thing of it, but gradually the weed got thicker and thicker and the ship slowed to a sluggish crawl. Fishmael cursed the plants, but even in his monomania he accepted that there was little to be done – the weed stretched on as far as the horizon in front a nd to the sides, and there was no question of turning back. Days passed at this crawling pace, then weeks. It was difficult for the crew not to be disheartened – Fishmael's swillings had severely depleted the rum, and the herring was half gone already. Then one sun-drenched day, a cry from aloft:
“Thar she blows!”
“Curses!” shouted Fishmael from below. “You definitely see her?”
“Aye, cap'n!” yelled Ambrosius, who was on masthead duty. “A giant white tail-fin. There it is again!”
“Blast!” Fishmael cried, storming up the companionway onto the deck. He squinted in the sunlight, raising his hand to his forehead to shield his unconditioned retinas from its intense glare. It was only in such direct smuglight that it became clear to his crew that Fishmael was not in fact of a naturally swarthy complexion as they had assumed by their moonlit glances at him. No, that was just dirt; underneath the grime, it was evident that Fishmael was almost albino in his paleness, having shunned smuglight for so long. He would be furious at the suggestion, but this quality he shared with his quarry.
“Dead ahead, not more than half a kilometre!” shouted Ambrosius.
“Full speed!” shouted Fishmael from the quarterdeck.
“The petrels are going flat out,” replied Jerry. “This is the fastest we can go.”
“She's heading this way!” shouted Ambrosius.
“She mocks us!” shouted Fishmael, at the taffrail with his telescope to his left eye. “I can see her, the pallid, good-for-nothing codfish!”
The fish came closer, until she was clearly visible to the unaided eyes of all on deck. Fishmael disappeared down into his cabin and came back up with his personal harpoon, sharpened to a point of infinitesimal deadliness.
“Arrrgh, can we go no faster?”
Jerry shook his head. “I'm sorry captain. We're carrying twenty tonnes of weed.”
“Then we shall lower the jolly boat and go after her that way. Come down from up there, Ambrosius lad, we need you. Get your harpoon and grit yer teeth, we're going to catch us a fish!”
“Aye, cap'n!” shouted Ambrosius.
Two minutes later Ambrosius was in the jolly boat, harpoon in hand, along with Stan, Mungo and Fishmael. Jerry lowered the four of them down into the weed-strewn mist, and they pulled the throttle of the outboard petrel until the bird was flapping like the clappers. Mungo was at the front of the boat, clearing the weed out the way with the end of his harpoon, with Stan at the back trying to untangle the rudder. Despite their best efforts within minutes the jolly boat was tangled in a green mass of weed and they slowed to a crawl that was little faster than the main ship.
“Hellfire!” cursed Fishmael. “Dart at her! Harpoon her I say!”
“But she's too far,” said Ambrosius.
“Dart at her!” cried the manic captain.
Ambrosius shrugged, then, with a javelin-throwers technique, launched his harpoon at the fish. It was a valiant effort, but still fell a good twenty metres short.
“Ye throw like a woman! Let me try.” Fishmael threw his harpoon, but his throw was nowhere near as powerful as Ambrosius', falling more than thirty metres short. Fishmael sank to his knees and dragged the harpoon, now attached to a mass of slimy green weed, back into the boat. He remained kneeling, staring mutely at the fish that was fifty metres and a thousand miles away. The petrel spluttered pathetically to stern and then stopped flapping. Stan looked overboard.
“Heat stroke,” he said. “She'll be okay again if we give her some water and rest her for a day or two.”
“Choke her!” shouted Fishmael.
Stan shook his head. “No, that will do nothing. I will not senselessly strangle a perfectly good bird.”
Fishmael boiled, too angry to speak. His eyes moved to the harpoon in his hand, then to Stan.
“Begging your forgiveness, but he's right, cap'n,” said Mungo, quickly. It was with great subtlety that his hand tightened around the shaft of his own harpoon. “That bird's served us well, t'would be treachery to kill her for no reason. We would never catch the fish even if she were flapping full tilt anyway.”
Fishmael spoke through gritted teeth. “I never had you down as a turncoat, Mungo.”
“I am no such thing, sir. I was just giving you my honest opinion as a seasoned mist-farer. If you really want me to I'll strangle that bird for you, but I had to raise my concern sir, just so you could know the opinion of your crew.”
Fishmael spat a black globule overboard. “I care nothing for the opinion of my crew,” he said. He turned and looked out towards the fish, which was joyfully undulating on the horizon. He looked back to Mungo. “But if I have a mutiny on my hands, then that fish will go free for sure. So leave the petrel be, if it pleases ye. That fish has eluded us for now, but our chance will come again. But bear this in mind: ye will not kill that petrel on my orders, but mark my words, if ye so much as hesitate at darting after the fish when the moment is right, my cutlass will be thirsty for your blood – aye, thirsty for anyone's blood who joins ye as well. Ye are bound by the contract, 'tis true, by blood even, but more than that; ye are bound by my sword. My cutlass has many chinks, and she will have many more before I go down to the mist.”