Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview
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Chapter 31 – Hunger and a Roar
You may say 'let Mungo cock his hat to his diabolic captain, for that is but a raindrop in a storm', but, when it comes down to it, a storm is made of raindrops. Besides, Mungo does not wear a cap, he wears his agaric bandanna, and he would never take it off in the sight of anyone, for he has a patch of baldness like a monk's tonsure that reveals an unsightly piece of head-cheese underneath. So don't be so lenient on this Cheddar-headed ruffian, because, despite his coarse lovableness, he is complicit in Fishmael's mission. Let your indignation run free like a wild stallion; do not throw ropes round her neck and try and saddle her, as she is running rampant for a reason. Similarly do not sympathise with Ambrosius or Stan or Jerry, for all are guilty of that atrocity of silence when asked „Would any of ye back out of what's ahead?'.
Such thoughts aside, time passed as is its habit, with dragged heels and a morose gait, crippled by boredom. The rum was the first to run out. Without the lure of inebriation, Fishmael had no motive for leaving his cabin, save for mealtimes, which he took alone in the dead of night. In this respect he did not hold back his appetites, for his monomania burnt fuel like a steam engine and required a lot of stoking with base nutrition. A month went by and six months rations were gone – the captain did not make any announcement to explain to his crew that this was the case, but instead remained locked in his cabin. When Jerry knocked on the door, then bellowed, then knocked again, there came a rumble from inside:
“See you the fish?”
“No, cap'n, but the crew want to turn back. We are out of rations.”
“Blast ye, disturb me not save for when the fish is sighted! We will not turn back – remember your contract with me, and remember on what pains you may break it. We carry on, and on... to the ends of the world we will hunt the fish!”
So it was that the crew sat about listlessly, trying to expend as little energy as possible. Hunger was now all that motivated them; the top mast was manned not to please Fishmael but to improve the prospect of catching the fish and hasten their gargantuan last supper. After a fortnight of this, shrunken stomachs cramped and moaned, their gurglings now dead, emptiness seeming to stretch in front of them like a wasteland; an emptiness that filled them with knives. There has, throughout history, been a holiness associated with fasting; here was its antithesis, here in these unsatiated stomachs. These knotted, acetic pits might as well have been full of brimstone, for they bred demons which possessed their possessors, making their cheeks hollow and eyes dead and all thoughts only of big hunks of fishy flesh, slithering gull-like down shrunken gullets. It is appropriately lowering, starvation, for it reminds the starver that they are made of crude matter, and that without it all the quicker faculties are stripped, until the bare, bleached bones of animalism are there for all to see. Like a dog with his chew toy, Mungo took to chewing a short length of rope; this habit spread, until the whole crew were doggedly exercising their canines. More time passed.
“If it is your job to kill,
Down amongst the mist and krill...”
Discordant and cracked, Mungo's trill as he came down from his shift in the crow's nest died in the ears of its listeners. Silently Jerry took his place, scaling the mast with stringy muscles standing out from sparse flesh. Dark things were happening with each person's metabolism; cannibalistic biochemical pathways were beginning to be trodden, first lightly, then with ever heavier a footfall. First went fat, then muscle, then the very marrow was savagely chewed. Even the nature of the spirit is called into question by such extremes, as it is eroded by something as simple and terrible as hunger.
Without the captain there to enforce discipline, the skeleton crew ate the petrels' rations, then, in an admission of hopelessness, the petrels themselves; they were left drifting on the foggy currents, knowing now that even if they spied the fish they would have no means of pursuing her. Still, the topmast was manned, for the mind works in strange ways and, even though all rational hope is gone, some irrational spark may remain.
It was in this driftwood-like state that Jerry hailed from the topmast the presence of the fish with a weak cry that was half a crow's squawk, half a dying man's anger. “Thar, thar on the horizon, thar she blows!”
In a flash Fishmael was on deck, blinking in the midday Smug. His paunch was gone, his face was gaunt, but those eyes, those obsidian, vulture eyes that caught the light like diamonds, they were unchanged in their elemental extremism.
“Flog that petrel!” screamed Fishmael.
There was silence.
“To the pits with ye, flog that petrel!”
“There was no more fish to feed the petrel. It's dead,” Jerry said. It may not have been the whole of the truth, but it was not quite a lie.
“Blast!” Fishmael ran to fore and then, with surprising nimbleness, ran out along the bowsprit until he was a near as possible to the fish without jumping overboard. He stood there shaking his fist at the white shape now just visible with the naked eye. “She comes towards us and then stays just within sight, the scallion!”
“What would you have us do, cap'n?” asked Jerry.
“I would have ye get out and flap your arms if I thought I could make a petrel of ye. Hellfire! Curses! Blast!” Fishmael walked back along the bowsprit and jumped down onto the deck. “You wouldn't have ate my petrels, now, would ye?”
“Ye mutinous scurvy hounds, ye have deliberately foiled the mission you were bound to on oath! All manner of curses on y' heads!” Fishmael drew his cutlass, spittle flecking his red lips like cream on strawberries. “Well, ye pustules, what will it be? Shall I carve ye for your treachery?”
Nobody spoke, but fists clenched. Then Fishmael shook his head and sheathed his cutlass once more in his belt. “T'would be too easy for you. Why should you have such an easy end whilst I am left here to die in the throes of agony? No, I will let hunger work her ways on ye, 'tis much more fitting; for it was your bellies that drove you to treachery and it will be your bellies that punish you for it.” Then Fishmael looked out once more to the horizon where the fish frolicked. “All cordiality between us is gone, I know this, but I will make one more order. Keep it for your own sake, not for mine. My order is this: keep those harpoons sharp as sixpence, for who knows, the fish may come to gloat and then we can dart at it. Think of the fry-up we can have then, me mutinous hearties. Now I will be fore with my eyeglass, watching the fish, aye, talking to it a little maybe, trying to coax it nearer with every incantation I know. Do not disturb me in my arts, else there will be more than curses.” Fishmael's hand rested on his cutlass hilt. “Now stop staring at me so. You all knew what you were getting yourselves in for when you shipped with me. Nobody on this ship is innocent.”
With that, Fishmael went fore and, with back to his crew, put the telescope to his eye and focused intently on the fish. How quickly the smuglight reflected off the fish and travelled to this lens, quicker than thought this a rchetypal image of fishiness travelled over the mists to refract through glass and sit large and proud on Fishmael's retina. Hours passed. What a shame Fishmael didn't have an in-built screen-saver, for that image of the fish was, minute by minute, being etched on the back of his eye. But what other use for that eye now, other than to receive this image? Death was near for the fishless crew, so why not burn this image onto the back of Fishmael's retina for the rest of his short life? So the lithographic vigil continued.
Time passed. The crew muttered amongst themselves about Fishmael, his madness and the cursed nature of their voyage, yet none had the courage to go and confront Fishmael. What would be the use? They had no means of propulsion, so they could not turn back for the City even if Fishmael were to give his consent. As the boat drifted listlessly, so too did the crew, in and out of consciousness and caring. The demonic captain stood erect in the bow, like some grotesque statue, eyeglass trained on the fish. From time to time Mungo would sing, then when he had not the energy to sing he would whistle, then when he had not the energy to whistle he would hum, then he fell back into silence. As the days and nights passed, all hope fled.
“This silence is playing tricks with my head,” said Mungo one gibbous night. “I could have sworn I heard a rushing noise, as if we were travelling through the mist. But here we stand, dead as a doornail.”
Xiphias was romping out obesely over the skinny sailors, bathing everything in silver and lead. Since they had sighted the fish, nobody had been up the topmast. Everyone but Mungo and the captain was asleep.
“There, a roaring sound. Maybe I'm going mad for want of fish – I've heard that people who go without piscoline lose their sanity so. But with all my lugholes' might I'd swear I could hear it, like a waterfall. Hey, Jerry.” Mungo prodded Jerry, who stirred slightly.
“What? I was filling my face with fish fingers in my fancy, Mungo. Let me back to my dreams.”
“But can't you hear it?”
“Hear what? I can only hear a doomed buffoon disturbing me from my only refuge of sleep.”
“Cock your ear, please Jerry. The silence is too loud!”
Jerry sighed, then he listened. “I can't tell if its my head or not,” he said dismissively.
“Two people can't both hear the same thing in their head,” said Mungo. “Here, Ambrosius, Stan,” he nudged them. “Strain yer lugs and listen. Can you hear that rushing sound?”
Ambrosius looked around blearily. “Yes, just about,” he said after a moments hesitation.
Stan was awake now too. “Yes. It's getting louder.”
“What in the name of cod can it be?” asked Mungo. “It sure ain't the wind in the shrouds; I've grown up with that all my life and it has never made such a noise. Why, I can feel the vibrations through the planks. Whatever is making that sound is powerful, though far off yet.”
Jerry groaned. “Who has the strength to climb the mast to find out what it is? Any takers?”
“I knew it. It's me again then,” he said. He struggled to his feet unsteadily. It was like watching a newly born foal taking its first steps – his wasted legs looked as though they would snap at any point. “Watch this skeleton climb,” he said with a deathly grin. He hobbled over to the main mast and took a deep breath, before starting his painful ascent. Only a sailor with a lifetime's experience of masthead duty could scale this wooden monolith in Jerry's kitten-weak condition. When he got to the crow's nest he collapsed against its rail.
“What can you see?” hailed Ambrosius from below.
“Nothing,” shouted Jerry. “There's just mist, as far as the eye can see. It looks like my climb was a waste of... wait... the horizon... must be my eyes... no, definitely...”
“What?” shouted Ambrosius.
“There's a dip on the horizon, like... sort of like a saucer, only vast... must be a mile or more across! Have ye heard the like of it Mungo?”
“I'm stumped,” replied his crewmate from below. “Like a saucer you say?”
“Aye, and the roaring must be coming from it. Say, Mungo, you've seen those marks on maps saying 'thar be monsters'. You give them much credence?”
“Not a jot – not until now, maybe. That said, I'm quite happy with being eaten if it will speed up my end, har, har.” Mungo's laugh was pitiful, but such a brave attempt at jollity showed his inner strength.
Fishmael turned to them now. “Mates, ye hear that roar?”
“So we're you're mates now, Fishmael?” asked Mungo. “No, we are mutineers now, good and proper.”
“Come now, ye would baulk at my little joke? I was pulling yer legs when I called ye treacherous. Never so literally could we all be in the same boat, mates. Tell me I'm not going mad and that ye can hear that roar.”
“Aye, there's a roar, but you are mad as well. And if it's a monster then we'll feed you to it first for getting us into this mess, mark my words.”
Fishmael put up his hand. “You feel a breeze?”
Mungo looked askance, then put up his hand as well. “Aye,” he said after a while, “I feel it. What of it?”
“'Twas dead still a minute ago,” said Fishmael. “Now there's a breeze. But it feels like no natural breeze. It doesn't come in gusts, but keeps dead steady.”
“I can feel it on my face,” said Ambrosius. “It's almost as if we were moving.”
“Aye,” said Mungo, his normally hearty voice cracked around the edges with a preternatural fear. “I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach like we're picking up speed. What manner of magic is this that draws us forward?”
“Look at the moon,” said Fishmael. “She's drawing to the left. That means we're turning too.”
“We're being taken over by ghosts!” said Mungo in a whisper. “Cod have mercy on us all!”
“Nonsense,” said Ambrosius. “Now let's look at this logically. We're accelerating, whilst turning at the same time. There is a saucer shaped dip on the horizon. Now saucers are circular. I reckon if we're accelerating and turning at the same time it's a fair bet we're on a circular course. I reckon that saucer is dragging us round...”
“Aye!” cried Mungo. “Now I know – I've heard of such a thing before; we're heading for the maelstrom!”
Jerry drew in breath over his teeth. Fishmael ran to the bowsprit and looked out. All manner of flotsam and jetsam studded the mist, carried on by the current.
“What's a maelstrom?” asked Ambrosius.
“I've heard of it, too” said Stan. “It's a giant whirlpool they say travels the world, sucking down ships to their death. Some say it's as old as Expiscor and is where the oceans are stirred to keep the mists even. I always thought it was an old sailors' story and nothing more.”
“Haha!” cried Fishmael from his position fore. “Then there is hope for us yet! Look, the fish is caught up in the current; she's too close now to swim free!”
“It's true!” shouted Jerry from the topmast. “She's right on the edge of it, going round and round like us.”
“Bless my barnacles!” Shouted Fishmael. “If she keeps swimming against the current as she is doing, then she'll move slower towards the centre than us. We'll catch her yet!”
“Aye, and be dashed to pieces a couple of minutes later,” said Mungo, hands on head.
“We're picking up speed pretty fast now,” said Ambrosius. “I can feel it in my stomach.”
“Can't we weigh anchor and try and stop ourselves?” suggested Stan.
“Never!” cried Fishmael. “We shall be on the fish in minutes. I shall not have my kill taken from me by some whirlpool.”
“Don't listen to him,” said Mungo. “Here, help me with the capstan and we'll heave the anchor down.”
Mungo, Stan and Ambrosius rushed over to the great wheel and started to turn it, lowering the huge metal anchor down into the mist. Fishmael turned purple.
“Ye treacherous wretches! Stop, I tell ye, we are nearly on the fish!”
The crew continued lowering anchor.
Fishmael drew his cutlass, but hesitated. He knew he could not take on three men, even with a weapon and an evil will. Besides, he still had it in his mind to lower for the fish when he was closer, and that required someone else to lower the jolly boat. His dark mind worked fast and, before his crew could notice, he ran over to where the anchor rope was paying out over the side.
“This ship shall not be stopped!” he yelled, and brought down his razor-sharp cutlass on the rope. There was a whipping noise as the taut fibres snapped and the anchor plunged down into the mist, rope streaming out behind it like a flagellum. The crew were jerked to the floor by the sudden release of tension on the capstan.
“You crazy old rat, you've just severed our only hope of surviving,” roared Mungo, picking himself up off the deck.
“Have not a shred of doubt, Mungo, we are hell-bound, and we shall pay the underworld's boatman with this fish's blood! Now make ready the jolly boat and grab ye harpoons. We lower for the fish.”
Mungo, Ambrosius and Stan were on their feet now.
“You think we would set out in the same boat as you, Fishmael? You are on your own.”
“Blast ye!” shouted Fishmael. “Then if ye want rid of me, lower me alone and I will go after the fish myself. Perhaps it is best that I alone am her nemesis.”
The crewmen hesitated. They wanted rid of Fishmael, it is true, but now they were about to meet their end they had each become urgent philosophers and theologists. Perhaps helping some crazy captain kill the last embodiment of goodness was not such a sensible final act, after all.
“None of ye will help me?” bawled the captain.
“No,” said Stan. “You're on your own.”
Fishmael shuddered with rage. Up above dark clouds were gathering, as though they too were being sucked towards the vortex. The moon was temporarily hidden, but a pale light still bathed the ship, only this time coming up from the mist below. The small phosphorescent creatures in the vapour were being agitated by the swirling torrents of mist, and, in their distress, they were glowing softly just as they did in the wake of the ship. There was a flash and thunder pealed from above, cutting out a particularly foul curse from Fishmael.
“Very well then, ye scumbuckets,” said Fishmael. “I shall make my own chances.” In a trice he went below and emerged again with his harpoon gleaming in the moonlight. He tested the edge with his finger, which testified sharpness by yielding forth a droplet of blood, black in the moonlight. Fishmael laughed, and with that the captain jumped into the jolly boat and, drawing his cutlass, slashed the ropes that held it in place.