My version of Christian speculative/fantasy fiction. Set on the mythical planet Thal in the days of wind and sail. From “The Mountains of the Eldritch Sea,” available on Smashwords.
I know that men are like the grass of the field and life is a vapor but how can I forget those rough and ready souls I lost to the glassy, staring sea? The fair tropical breeze, the blazing pearl of the moon and its sweet touch upon my island wife, a growing parish here beneath the endless sun; can such things give pleasure without pain? Are they the rewards of faith or the torments of failure?
The One And Only God won’t say, not even when the tide goes out and the top of the rotting mainmast rises like a skeletal finger pointing its accusation. “Pa-pa,” say my children, “why do you stare? Why pour our wine upon the sand, praying with a catch in your voice? Why the tear?”
I tell them as much as The God tells me. Someday He will answer and so will I.
My first parish was a merchant ship at sea. Early in my career at seminary I had taken a few courses in chaplaincy but never intended to pursue it as a vocation. I believed I was called to a simple life as an unremarkable temple priest with all the mundane challenges and rewards pertaining thereto.
The One On High believed otherwise. Before I could even wonder what had happened I found myself at the ancient port of Gadarr asking the most exotic strangers where I might find the ships of the Blue Company and which one was merchantman 072.
Storms threatened as I stepped aboard the ebon ship bobbing by the quay. Powdery white beaches and a lowering sky reminded me of winter back home on the grassy inland plains but the season was summer, the hot, heavy sky swimming with scents of pitch and sea salt. The mariners’ cordiality hardly concealed their indifference but no matter. I was sure to win them once they got to know me. Such was my conceit.
My years at seminary had taught me the importance of a strong entrance but as I stepped down into the ship master’s cabin I snagged my star-spattered priestly robe on a peg. The old amethyst eyed skipper sighed, drumming his fingers on his ornately carved desk as I struggled to free myself.
“Why the satrap insists that every compliment over fifteen in number must haul the dead weight of a bloody chaplain is beyond me!” he fumed, the silvery broom straw of his beard standing erect upon his reddened face.
“Put me to work, then,” I said, retrieving my dignity as I straightened my robe. “I’m not too fragile to stand watch nor too proud to swab.”
“The men would never have it. They’re atheists but superstitious ones.”
The men did have it once they saw I was in earnest. The last priest to serve the ship was an imperious lay about who dispensed absolution to the compliant and condemnation to the independently minded, as if they were his to grant. I hauled and hammered, scrubbed and scraped like any ordinary seaman, leaving my star-spattered robe neatly folded in my locker. I was quickly disabused of my naivete. No amount of “sweatin’ and swearin’” could truly close the distance between the godless men of action and the lofty minded cleric but at least I could talk to them and they could talk to me.
One talked quite a bit. His name was T’aulp. His family lived outside the village of Hkhmadd, not far from my father’s farm.
“I never been away from home before,” he said one day. It was a brilliant afternoon on a high but settling sea. We were cleaning up after three days of heavy weather. Seaweed hung like tattered silk from the rigging and tiny golden fish flashed in puddles on the deck. “I wanted to see the world. I thought there’d be more to it than a hundred shades of water.”
“Wait till we make port,” I said, as if I’d been on the water my whole life. “Then we’ll see a few things.”
“Mr. Blazes says that once we cross the equator everyone’ll walk upside down and the women wear no clothes. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong on both counts, though I don’t like to say so to his face.”
“You’re wise,” I said. “The deck master is jolly enough when spinning a yarn but when questioned he prefers fists to reasons.”
“What about you, then? What’re you doing out here in the middle of the Eldritch Sea? They run out of parishes on land?”
“Oh, no,” I laughed. T’aulp was just about a year younger than I. Neither of us had seen an ocean before we boarded the ship. “The church is still trying to fill the holes left when the great houses and their ecclesiastical councils went down with the last emperor. I came out here because this is where The God sent me.”
“Ach!” he said, shrugging off such talk. I knew he came from a devout family and had a solid foundation. He also had a keen mind full of his own questions. This is a pastor’s delight for no one is more impervious to the Mighty Spirit than the blindly religious. But “proper seed for fertile ground,” as The Book says. The oddly cobbled philosophy of lore and hard-headed “sea sense” espoused by the irreverent sailors had its allure. I came to regard my relationship with the young man as a sort of divine rescue mission.
We were bound for the Constellations, a complex chain of volcanic islands just south of the equator. I am a man of the north and content to be. The south never appealed to me but the sailors’ strange and beautiful stories of the alien region were captivating. They told of long trails of boiling water marking submarine fissures with shifting serpentine contours that gave rise to rumors of sea monsters. There were the “red islands,” huge formations of lava bursting from the emerald swells only to be washed back to the depths before their fires died. In contrast to these fleeting apparitions stood the black mountains of the “living islands” crammed with uncountable varieties of stunningly hued flora. Many of the native species were said to possess properties treasured by alchemists and sorcerers as well as wholesome physicians, an assessment verified by the ship’s surgeon.
One island in particular seemed to hold a special fascination. The men would only mention it as they stood watch after the darkest hour, always waiting for the planet Orelius to show its pale silvery face on the eastern horizon before speaking the terrible name in lowered voices, as if the wind might carry their conversations across the empty stretches to some hostile ear. “B’ara Kkhul, five and twenty,” one would say and another would shake his head as with a great, reverent sadness spiced with fear and the fatal allure of some irresistible temptation. If they caught me approaching they’d change the subject, like parents discussing some adult situation which might overwhelm the children should they be exposed.
I won’t deny the dispiriting effect of such an indicator. Neither will I give it more than its due. To break into such a closed society would be difficult under the best conditions and to many sailors I represented, if not an enemy, at least an antagonist or an object of suspicion. Most of the objections to the common faith, whether expressed with the refined grace of the ship’s surgeon or the heavily salted exclamations of Mr. Blazes were exactly what I’d been taught to expect at seminary. I had also been taught their counters but, just as determined belief yields no ground to the most irresistible powers and strategies, so too determined unbelief.
Not that we pass each day locked in some grim conflict. All men afford themselves the luxury of opinion and casual conviction when the sun is high and the sea is smooth. But The God is no arbiter of recreational debates. Sooner or later the trials come, some with the overwhelming ferocity of a tidal wave, others with the subtlety of an errant breeze or languorous current leading away from a desired destination. Sooner or later we find that He is serious and His demand that we be serious cannot be resisted.
So it was that I came to carry out that most serious and least desirable duty to fall to a chaplain; a burial at sea.
Ordinary Seaman N’lai, known to his mates as “Duster” for reasons apparent only to themselves, departed our company on the morning of an overcast and uncharacteristically chilly day. The sea was chopping up a bit, the wind freshening but conditions were well within the range we’d call calm. The lad was about his duties aloft. Having just picked up the end of a line and passed it through a pulley he was hit by a bolt of lightning. There was a barely audible snap! and no clap of thunder. No one knew the poor man had been struck until the ship pitched and threw him over from the cross member onto which he had collapsed.
At the higher latitudes it is customary to let at least a day of mourning and reflection pass before the ceremony but the heat and humidity of the tropics preclude such refined observations. The day remained overcast but by afternoon we were back in the oven. The men donned their “dressers,” the white peasant’s gi and black pants which served as the duty uniform everywhere but the equatorial regions, and assembled on deck.
The Sea Ceremony is an abbreviated version of the Ceremony of Ascent so familiar to us all. There can be no open fires aboard ship so it is left to the ocean and its devices to destroy the sin-laden flesh. This is the chief difference but there are other alterations as well, all to accommodate the practical realities of maritime service.
The men were somber. Not even the hardened sailors are at home with death. “Duster” was not particularly well liked. He was a sullen loner and suspected of petty theft but none would wish him dead and the shock of his demise left each man considering his own place in the scheme of things.
I began with some trepidation, knowing the position of the mariners in general and certain individuals in particular. It is a moment of truth for a pastor to stand before proclaimed unbelievers mourning a proclaimed unbeliever. While it is no lie to resort to declarations of uncertainty regarding a man’s inmost thoughts and The God’s gracious intentions, neither is it a source of comfort to such men nor a light to lead them out of error.
In the end I decided not to stray from the strictest application of the ritual. The prescribed scriptures spoke with clarity and there would be plenty of time for reflection during my day to day dealings with the men, an opportunity not enjoyed by the average temple priest. But I would be a wicked pedant indeed if I failed to add some personal observation.
“I’ve no wish to keep us all standing in the heat,” I said. The atmosphere was saturated with that thick, curious silence peculiar to oppressive summer days and the splash of the waters parting before the prow seemed to reach us from some vastly distant world. “But before we consign our friend to the tender mercies of the waves I must point out what a hole his departure leaves. I’ll not pretend the man was a saint or some notable philanthropist. We’re all aware of his more obvious short comings but so too are we aware of his value as a member of this crew, as a fellow man and as a being loved by Him Who Dwells On High…”
“Don’t say what you don’t believe!” I couldn’t tell who said it but it was accompanied by a few mumbles of agreement.
“Deck master!” bellowed the old amethyst eyed skipper, “Order your crew!”
“Stow it, you lot!” commanded Mr. Blazes. “Our apologies, pastor. Please continue.”
I will say that I was a harder man than the day I stepped aboard. The sailor’s outburst, though surprising, was by no means crushing. More distressing was the deck master’s clear delineation of the two sides of a conflict and his assumption of supremacy. He clearly intended to allow me to continue with the ceremony.
I completed my duty then invited deck master Blazes to visit my office at the end of his watch.
I was deep in thought, strategizing for the coming interchange when T’aulp stopped by. We had gotten into the habit of meeting after evening mess, sometimes reminiscing about solid ground but usually discussing weightier matters with the easy good humor of men who liked to listen and talk. Time and exposure had changed my attitude toward this bright young man. While he certainly needed rescuing from the destructive course pursued by his mates I repented of my initial rush to judgment regarding the condition of his spirit. I now sought the benefit of a friend rather than the migration of some anonymous being from one pile of souls to another.
“Do you plan to yell louder than Mr. Blazes?” asked T’aulp. Through my tiny porthole I could see the evening sky clearing, with patches of deep violet and crimson poking through the shredding clouds. “You’ll need a whole new vocabulary to compete on his field.”
“A soft word, my friend,” I said absently, reading over an entry in my journal detailing some of my impressions of the deck master. “My mother used to read us a bedtime story about a man who couldn’t hear what you said if you shouted.”
“Maybe you should get your mother to talk to Mr. Blazes then.”
Eventually the sun vanished, taking most of the clouds with it, and the chimes struck the night watch. I half expected the deck master to blow off the appointment just to show who was who, but he soon appeared.
“Thank you for coming,” I said with a bow. T’aulp bowed and moved to leave but I stopped him. The chaplain’s office is neutral territory where formalities are observed for the sake of courtesy but all are regarded as equals before The God.
“Beggin’ your pardon, chaplain,” said Mr. Blazes, “but is it proper for an ordinary seaman to be present for such a dressing down?”
“Dressing down? Hardly. Please, have a seat. Care for some tea?”
“No,” he said with a smile that made me uncomfortable. “Thank you. You’re sure about O. S. T’aulp here?”
Something in his tone told me I should let the young man go. Blazes was already dismantling the casual situation I had sought to create and I fully understood T’aulp’s position. But I would not be bullied and I thought that, painful though it might prove to be, T’aulp could only benefit by seeing his sort up close.
Besides, I needed an ally. T’aulp was the only friend I had.
“Quite sure. Mind a few questions?”
“Long as you don’t mind the answers,” said Blazes. “I ain’t the argumentative sort.”
“What was meant by the comment, ‘Don’t say what you don’t believe’?”
“Well if it wasn’t so bloody obvious I’d tell you to track down the fella what said it and ask him. You tell me, pastor. Where is O. S. Duster, that ‘being loved by Him Who Dwells On High’?”
“The bottom of the sea.”
“Aye. And where else? Don’t tell me you don’t know; it’s what you’re paid for.”
“You think that, because I wear the robe I see what The God sees?”
“I think you’re as great a coward as all you lot,” said Blazes. “I think you know exactly where the man is but you’ll not say because your ‘gracious’ God falls apart if He torments a man in front of his mourners.”
“And I think you’re old enough to know the doctrine better than that. Not even The God forces a man to believe. Take Him or leave Him, as you please, but don’t lie about Him.”
“Me lie about Him? As if an ignorant sailor would know where to start. That’s pretty! So that one’s answered. Any others?”
“Why the antagonism?” I said. “What do you care?”
Mr. Blazes smiled and addressed his answer to T’aulp. “What’d I tell you, lad? He don’t take this business serious! It’s all polite conversation over a lovely cup of tea to his sort. ‘Take Him or leave Him, as you please’, he says! We know better, don’t we?”
The deck master stood and leaned over my desk, glaring down at me like some giant animal deciding whether to kill a flea. “Since you still got your mamma’s milk runnin’ down your chin I’ll make it plain. Every boat has a god and it’s the master of the deck. If your magic genii wants this ship he’ll have to fight me for it, ain’t that right seaman T’aulp? Well?”
I won’t pretend I was unaffected by this display; Blazes was a big man with a bigger temper and a lot could happen aboard a ship at sea. But his manipulation of T’aulp was intolerable.
“Very well, deck master,” I said, leaning back on my stool. “You just keep throwing your tantrum and time will tell what’s what. Hold your breath till you turn blue, if you like. Thanks for stopping by.”
“I’ll do that, pastor.” Once again he looked at T’aulp. “As you say. We’ll see what’s what.” With that he left.
Neither of us said a word. I was shaking. The timbers creaked, the wind whispered, the lanterns made their soft burning sounds. Finally, T’aulp spoke.
“I’m not sure you did me a favor just now.”
Speculation about poor T’aulp’s fate at the hands of the deck master kept me wide awake that night. Blazes was the “hard but fair” sort in the execution of his managerial duties but he knew the young man was my only friend on board. Who knows what a man will stoop to when he’s already called himself a god?
The chimes sounded midnight – the darkest hour – and I was no closer to sleep. My little window overlooked a section of the port deck and I heard the men about their business, passing orders, making up new names for the officers, now and then singing. Such sounds, combined with the rocking of the ship usually lulled me to sleep in short order. Tonight they added immeasurably to my agitation.
I was about to give up and find some work to do when I heard a bit of conversation.
“Nar! We hit Daichek’s Current dead on six days ago. We can’t be off course!”
“The old man’s steering by Grudd and Haldap. He’s on the fantail shooting them right now but Mr. Stars told me himself.”
“Yeah? Where’s he think we’re headed?”
It was quiet for a moment, and then the second man said in the low voice reserved for one particular subject, “I don’t see Orelius yet…”
I awoke to the dawn chimes, groggy and stiff. Fog was heavy on the water but the sky was clear overhead, shimmering with all the warm hues of a brilliant sunrise. We had sighted birds days ago but now I could hear distant caws and whistles, as if the fog concealed a rookery.
It took some time to realize that birds and water were the only things I heard. There were plenty of men on deck but they all stood silently clutching the gunwales, leaning into the fog as if to see that much deeper into its mysteries. T’aulp stood among the transfixed, staring with the rest of them.
I stared too. At first I found nothing amiss but I soon realized there was something odd about the water. The fog was lifting and as I watched I began to see whitecaps smashing into each other, moving in all sorts of chaotic directions.
“T’aulp!” I said, noticing that all the men were still looking into the fog, not at the water. “T’aulp! What’s going on?”
The young man never took his eyes from the invisible horizon. “We’re in a whirlpool,” he said, almost as if telling me it was time for lunch. “The skipper says we should’ve been pulled under by now…”
Men don’t make it for long on the sea if they’re not rock steady in desperate situations but this was something else. Clearly the danger of the whirlpool was a minor issue to all in attendance. The real concern still lurked in the mystery of the fog.
“What’re we all staring at, then? T’aulp!” It was like trying to rouse a man in a stupor. “T’aulp! What’s everybody looking at?”
In the distance off the port side we could just make out the black tops of mountains catching the sunlight. The men became agitated. “Steady, you lot!” called the skipper. “Remember your oaths!”
Suddenly the clouds shredded and dropped into the sea. Waves rolled placidly onto a glittering silver beach bordering areas of riotous form and color which in turn faded into the stunning black of the mountains.
With a shout three men dove into the water to make for a shore too far away for any man to reach. The current pulled them under before they swam a single stroke.
“Sergeant at arms, post your men!” commanded the skipper. “There will be no desertions from this ship, not in this world and not to the next!”
Was I still asleep? What kind of a world had I stepped into?
“Deck master! Call your crew to attention!”
“Eyes front!” called Mr. Blazes. The men responded slowly, hardly able to turn away from the vision off our port side. The slowest felt the deck master’s lash.
“I’m not one for speeches,” announced the skipper, “and I’m no genius, but this much I know. If we pay attention to yonder island we’ll all end up fish food like your three mates. If we keep at our duties and gain a favorable wind we just might make it out of here. Mr. Stars, you and your section plot us a course back to open water. The charts are useless. This vortex did not exist at the time of the last survey. Sergeant at arms, see that none venture topside unless their duties absolutely so require. Use any force necessary and keep an eye on those who do come up. Chaplain, you will accompany me to my quarters. Dismissed!”
The old shipmaster was clearly of a different mind than the first time I entered his cabin. “Please,” he said calmly, “have a seat. What do you know about B’ara Kkhul?”
“One of the major islands at the eastern end of the Constellations. Travel is restricted. The men seem to think it’s for some sinister supernatural reason.”
“It’s restricted because the merchant service has lost twenty five ships here. ‘B’ara Kkhul, five and twenty.’ The submarine geography is unstable. There’s no telling what conditions will be from one cruise to the next. Although I’m beginning to think the men are on to something. Mr. Stars tells me this whirlpool is impossible. We’ve been here long enough to see the tide affect it. It hasn’t. And the strength of it! You saw what happened to Aqi, U’jyn and Kkj. According to Stars the same thing should’ve happened to the ship.”
“I’m no oceanographer, master. How can I help?”
“Stars knows his business. If this thing can be escaped he’s the man to pull it off. Blazes can keep his crew under control and I can handle the officers. You deal with the island.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why do you think the men were lining the deck this morning? Why do you think three fine sailors deserted their posts and died trying to swim to a shore well beyond their reach? Do you not feel it, pastor?”
“I… I’m not sure what I feel, master. There is something about the place.”
“Aye,” sighed the old sailor, and I had a momentary glimpse of all his years at sea hanging upon him like an anchor chain. “I never believed the stories but it seems there is something after all. For some it’s naked women or untold riches. Others hear the siren singing of esoteric knowledge, unwholesome abilities, power over enemies. Some don’t know what they hear but the danger is acute nevertheless. For my part…”
He grinned like a youngster caught at some childish mischief. “Listen to me, making my confession! I’m getting too old for this, pastor, and that’s a fact. Look, there’s something spooky about this place and that’s your department. My men need an antidote or a charm or whatever it is you think you can provide. Or prayer, as I suppose you’ll insist. We can fight what we see; you fight what we can’t, savvy?”
“I can’t fight anything. Our only defense is in The Hands of The Maker Of All Things.”
“Been prayin’ to that Maker since we left port, have you? You see where He’s put us!”
“On top of the water, sir. You said it yourself; we should’ve been pulled under by now.”
“Hmm. Even Stars can’t tell us why…” mused the skipper, stroking his long, silvery beard. “But we’re still in the same spot with the same resources. Look, pastor. I don’t know Him and I don’t trust Him but it looks like He’s all you have to offer. Do what you can with Him. But mind: we’re due at the port of Jyke on B’ara R’reth. I’ll not leave this ship until we reach our destination and I expect all under my command to follow my example, understand?”
Confinement below deck seemed to take some of the edge from the island’s spell. This proved to be a mixed blessing. When the men weren’t senseless with their hallucinations of paradise they found time to be terrified by the whirlpool. Speculation as to the nature of the phenomenon ranged from the scientifically scrupulous to the wildly creative. It was eventually settled that some sort of monster must be responsible.
I’m not so sure they were wrong. Day after day it swept us round the great bay of B’ara Kkhul like a bored tchk’akora batting her prey to and fro, not knowing herself when she’d pounce and end the gruesome game. Past the open water of the sea and its freedom, around to the silvery beach crowned with its mountains steeped in the shades of the darkest hour, sometimes passing close enough to see stilt legged birds dashing in from the breakers with little golden fish flashing in their bills. Before long we’d rush upon the boulders and cliffs standing opposite the beach where slate green sea birds hatched and screeched, no doubt wondering at the flightless ebon monster with its wings of ghostly blue and no voice save the splash of the waves, for all speech was hushed in terrible desperation and all songs were a memory.
It is natural; no, it is more than natural for such relentless peril to turn a man’s thoughts to worlds to come and careful consideration of the trajectory of his life. For all his bluff and bluster the sailor is no exception and I soon had my fill of what appeared to be the very opportunities I’d sought since our departure. Young men and old hands alike now sat with me at mess, seeking reassurances that they could sip like tea when fear gripped too hard, buying their “fire insurance” as some were honest enough to call it. A few made very artful and convincing confessions but I knew their newfound “faith” was naught but another talisman to add to their collection of briny sea gods and good luck charms and I was all but destroyed by the abyss of their understanding and the shallow waters of their true desires.
In contrast to the rest stood T’aulp, an innocent with whom I was happy to struggle toward the light of truth, and Blazes, a genuine antagonist who seemed no more concerned with the power of the whirlpool than with the strength of an opponent in a drunken brawl. Whether the stress of the situation affected my perceptions or I was the beneficiary of some revelatory illumination, I soon recognized the reduction of my situation to a simple configuration. I stood at one end, Blazes at the other with T’aulp in the middle.
Is this where the mistake was made? Had I taken on the work of The God Himself, only to neglect my own humble labors? Did I really think it was me against Blazes with the young man’s soul as the prize? It’s not truly possible for a man to know what he thought in a given situation at a given time but I certainly redoubled my efforts toward T’aulp while falling back more and more upon ritual and formulaic platitudes in my dealings with the senseless, rock headed mariners.
I had written them off. When the crisis came and the stakes were clear to even the meanest sinner among us, I decided the venture was hopeless.
Will His Mercy cover such an atrocity?
Round we went and with every orbit the men seemed to throw off bits of sense and sanity. Stars could give nothing but bad news and the old ship master, ice steady since we left Gadarr, let him have it with the flail, whereupon the navigator retired to the observation top and would not come down. Able Seaman Rjy was observed conversing with a particular sea bird as a man would with a genuine confidant, nodding as if hearing answers, laughing or flying into rages. He eventually wrung the poor creature’s neck and then mourned it. At all times men tried to sneak past the guards, never succeeding, provoking ever more violent reprisals until I feared the eruption of a general mutiny.
Through all of this Blazes maintained his poise. His appearance was always sufficient to halt whatever mayhem was afoot and I was sure he had defined the limits of the crew’s behavior to his own peculiar satisfaction and enforced those limits with the quiet ruthlessness of an unquestioned leader. Of all the things there were to fear the men feared him the most.
Once again I was summoned to the ship master’s quarters. I found a haggard old man. The anchor chain had become the world itself, pulling against the iron will of the exhausted mariner as the mass of the globe would pull against the sprightly moon should she stumble along her celestial circuit, allowing him no chance to surface for a breath of air. His evident decline made me afraid.
“You… you know we’ve all been acting crazy,” he started. “I chased Stars up the mast. Right up. Carpenter using up supplies to build some kind of idol… sorry. I wasn’t supposed to tell you about that…”
“What did you want me for, master?”
“I can’t command this vessel, pastor. I’ve been relieved by The Commander Of The Sea. It’s all His! Or will be shortly… You’re His executive. You tell them!”
“What are you talking about?”
He looked at me like I had sprouted horns. “The steward, man! I’m talking about the bloody steward! He’s been dropping our food over the side for days! We’ve nothing to eat! Maybe I could coax Stars down from the top. Maybe the men won’t mutiny. Of course they won’t! They’ll be starved!”
He put his head down on his desk for a moment, then raised it to look me in the eye. “I always thought I’d retire to a quiet life ashore. Dig in the garden, scare the grandkids with sea stories, show up at reunions. Or, if the sea had a different idea, I’d go down with dignity. I never envisioned this. God! Have Blazes assemble the men. Maybe he can keep them from jumping overboard long enough for me to tell them they’re going to die.”
“Do you really need to tell them, master?”
“Even starvation needs discipline and careful planning. Besides, I’ve no right to keep them from knowing what they’re up against. They deserve to know.”
So it was that the skipper, his executive and I stood upon the deck facing the sagging hulks of men once vigorous and unstoppable, drained of the pride which laughed at the power of the sea itself. The old man’s message was received in silence. Of course they already knew the situation but now they’d been given permission to stand down and succumb, provided they did so with “discipline and careful planning.”
“Chaplain,” called one of the men, “will you not have a word with The Commander Of The Sea on our behalf?”
“Go ahead and answer him,” said the skipper quietly. “Preach ‘em a sermon, if you think it’ll help.”
“Well,” I said, looking at the man who had spoken. A fresh breeze stroked random notes from the rigging, keeping an odd sort of rhythm with the crash of the unguided prow upon the tumbling whitecaps. “I have done, and little else. But the fact is, absent some miracle, we’re for it, and I’m expecting no such miracle.
“But look, lads, unlike most people and certainly unlike most sailors lost at sea, we’ve been given a chance to prepare. Someone once said to me, ‘Don’t say what you don’t believe.’ Sound advice under all conditions but never more so than now. So I can’t say I believe there’s hope of rescue. I can’t say that if we confess our sins with all humility and repentance, say our prayers and resolve to go forth as new men The God will relent and let us see our loved ones again.
“I will tell you this. The God that made this sea and imbued it with its magnificent power so that it might serve at His Command made each of us as well. He imbued each of us with magnificent power so that we might serve at His Command but unlike the senseless elements of nature He made us in His Own Likeness, with spirits to give us life, minds so that we might comprehend and free wills so that we might choose life or death, repentance or rebellion, Heaven or Hell. Remember His Promise of the Sacrifice For All, wherein He shall taste death as all His creatures taste death… as we are about to taste death. Remember His Promise of the life that cannot end, offered with His Own Tears, His Own Blood to any who will but ask! It is no denial of worth for a man to agree with his Maker and repent of his sins. He believes that each of you is worth more than all His seas, all the stars in His limitless space, all His fiery messengers which ever prostrate themselves before His Throne. Who are we to turn away such an irresistible love?
“I cannot say I believe this, lads. I must say I know it and so do you.”
Silence prevailed, as if we’d already swirled down to our watery graves. Even the wind had ceased pulling its music from the rigging and I wondered what could possibly be passing through those briny hearts and rock solid heads.
“Ahoy!” cried Mr. Stars from high above. “Look at the sea! Are ya’s blind as well as daft? The sea! Look at it!”
Today’s orbit had carried us closer than usual to the silvery beach but we saw no breakers washing upon the shimmering sands. Birds wandered to and fro, pecking, pecking but finding no fish…
We were stopped dead upon a sea smooth as glass and just as solid, with B’ara Kkhul a stroll away.
The silence remained unbroken as shock held us in its grip. “Master,” I finally said to the skipper, quietly so as not to disturb whatever cosmic balance had been struck, “you must give the order.”
“What? What order?”
“Abandon ship. Lower the netting and make for shore.”
“Chaplain! What’s it mean?” The men were inching across the deck to the side opposite the beach. They were clearly terrified. “What’s it mean?”
“It means we’re saved, lads! Skipper, will you not give the order?”
“Do as you please!” yelled the skipper. “I told you, damn you, I told you! It’s His ship now! I’ll issue no orders!”
“Very well. Boatswain, lower away there! Cast that netting over the side!” The boatswain, his face bloodless pale beneath his vermillion whiskers backed away from the gunwale with his hands in the air.
“What’s gotten into you lot?” I cried. “Are you that set upon dying? Look at what He’s done for you! Let go the dead weight, lads! Abandon this ship and live!”
“What’s gotten into you lot?” echoed Mr. Blazes in a mocking tone. Never once in all our time at sea had he shown the least surprise at any occurrence. All along I had refused to understand why.
“You see the man is talking perfect sense,” persisted the master of the deck, gesturing broadly lest any miss the implicit sarcasm. “Stay aboard and die, stroll across to the beach and live. Nothing easier. Off with ya’s now! Go on!”
By now the men had pulled themselves into a huddle, their eyes wide and shining.
“No? Seaman T’aulp, there’s a sensible fellow! You can’t let our pastor leave friendless! Help him with that netting and God speed you on your way.”
“Come on, T’aulp.” I could barely speak for the lump in my throat. “You know what’s what. Don’t stay here!”
He wouldn’t come. That’s all I can say. He stood there shaking like a wet animal in a snowstorm, that same wide eyed vacancy on his face as all his mates and wouldn’t move.
Forgoing the cargo nets I tossed a line over the side and scrambled down. The sea was indeed solid but I was in no state to care. Sink or stand, it was all the same at that moment. I moved off a few paces and turned to make a final appeal but Blazes’ smiling face was all I could see against the cloudless sky.
“B’ara Kkhul and Blazes!” he laughed. “Six and twenty!”
With that the great ship dropped straight down out of sight, leaving the smooth, glassy sea in its place.
I don’t remember the walk to the shore or how long I sat there watching the combers and listening to the riots in the rookery across the bay. I was found by the woman I eventually married.
“You’ve come!” was all she said as she smiled and touched the sleeve of the star spattered robe.
I cannot leave B’ara Kkhul. The native people possess no ships worthy of the open sea and merchant mariners will never risk life and cargo if they can help it. Needless to say there is no sinister magic here, though I believe I have discovered the old shipmaster’s unspoken temptation. It is a peaceful place with few opportunities for life and death decisions.
With the help of my wife and a few of the island’s Great Men I’ve built up a parish far surpassing the ship’s compliment in number. It is a worthy labor, blessed by The Power On High and carried out in genuine devotion. I love these people and can imagine no life apart from them.
But every day the sprightly moon completes her celestial circuit, pulling back a corner of the watery shroud covering those rough and ready souls. Their voices rise in profane songs and elegant curses, their hearts cower before the torment and the ship’s rotting mast points its accusation, whispering my name, demanding my response.
All reason and faith tell me that each man’s path is his own and the Work Of The God cannot depend on a solitary fallible creature. Their end was ordained. It was never in my crippled, mortal hands.
But I cannot say what I don’t believe.