From the author: A becalmed pirate ship. An outbreak of a mysterious plague. And a log that's building to a final entry.
July 18, 1724 (by my reckoning)
This is the log of the Free Ship Peril, formerly the sloop-of-war HMS Peregrine. It is somewhat extraordinary, I’ll warrant, to find a ship of the Brotherhood maintaining such a record and we have not seen fit to do so until now, with the hopes that whoever may find this book will offer up prayers for our wicked souls that we may be forgiven and …
The door to my quarters opened, the visitor unannounced by any knock. As there was only one man aboard besides myself who was able to make his way about the ship, I knew exactly who it was. Old Moses, a half-civilized African whom we’d pulled off a cargo vessel near Hispaniola a year ago. I’d taken him to be my personal servant, a position he was accustomed to, having served in such employment aboard various ships since his youth.
“What is it?” I detested being interrupted.
“Another man down, Captain. He took a step backwards, as though he expected to be dismissed with a curt order.
We’d been blown off-course nearly a month ago and all but becalmed since. Having been on the return leg of our journey, we were already short of victuals and fresh water when the storm hit. Weakened by hunger, the men succumbed to a vicious fever. Of our original crew of 37, some dozen men had already died. This man would be the thirteenth that Moses and I had committed to Davey Jones. I myself had survived this long only because I kept myself on more generous rations – the captain of a vessel must always have the clearest head, and besides, rank has its privileges. Moses credited the leather pouch he wore about his neck. A gris-gris he called it in his savage tongue and claimed it had powers to protect him from demons, disease and even the bullets of a white man.
I stood up. “All right, then. I’ll help you dispose of him.” Moses did a half bow and backed out of the cabin. I followed him.
I retched as we first stepped below deck, doing my damnedest not to throw up. Adding the stench of my own vomit to the horrific blend of puke, offal, decaying flesh and corruption that clogged my nose and mouth would be bad enough. Embarrassing myself in front of Moses would be even worse.
A few of the men muttered, whether greetings or imprecations at the perceived incompetence of my command I could not say. I followed Moses to where the dead man lay in a filthy hammock spotted with his bodily waste and blood. Disposing of him was efficient: simply cut the strings suspending the hammock, fold in over (using the ends of the rope to avoid contacting the filthy thing) then haul it up the steps and onto the deck. There Moses, who fancied himself a holy man, would murmur a few prayers as he sewed the hammock shut. Then we tossed it over the rail. As we slipped the man over the side, it seemed to me that going on like this would be fruitless with no longer enough rations to make even a pretense of feeding the sick and it being all I could do to keep myself alive.
The stench leaked up from the hold and spoiled the moonlit evening on the still seas. I spoke to the savage. “If we stay, we are sure to end up like those poor bastards down there.”
“I suggest we make our getaway. If we abandon the Peril, we could escape in the boat. With both of us to man the oars and laden with what water and foodstuffs as we have, the two of us might be able to make landfall somewhere.” I hated to let the black man in on my plans to abandon my crew, but there was no one else to assist me and it would take both of us to man the small boat. Besides, once we reached land, I had a brace of pistols tucked into my sash, and he did not.
“That’d be hard on them we leave behind.” He looked at the moon and smiled – the look of a man who was either inspired or had gone mad. In our desperate straits, both were possible.
“Look, even if by some miracle every one of them was able to get up on deck tomorrow, we’ve barely enough left for a skeleton crew. And I don’t see how that’s going to happen, not unless God himself steps down onto our for‘castle this minute.”
Moses turned, his white teeth glinting with moonlight against his dark face. “Maybe those men below, maybe we’re not done with them yet. Maybe, Captain, this boat she doesn’t need such a big crew after all.”
“No crew? It takes at least a dozen men to man this ship and … My God, man, you’re not suggesting that we eat –.” I’d heard stories of crews, driven to desperation, doing just that with their dead in order to survive, and on the last trip down below there seemed to have been more men missing than should have been by Moses’ count. There were limits even to my unnatural inclinations.
“No, sir. Eating those poor souls below won’t do us any good at all. Keep us alive for a while, maybe, but without a crew, even a breeze came up tomorrow we couldn’t sail this ship. We’d just have to hope another vessel spotted us.”
“And any ship that spotted us would take us as pirates to be hanged. Hardly worth the effort of saving us.” I felt in my pocket for a pipe, the one solitary joy I had left as our holds were crammed with tobacco, taken off a Spanish ship headed out of Havana.
“You predict my line of thought most admirably, Captain.”
He bowed in a mocking way, cackling. Such disrespect probably would have earned him a good flogging on his old ship, but the Brotherhood has never been much for standing on form. If you want to spend the rest of your life yessirring and nosirring, then you might as well remain in His Majesties service and have your three squares as well.
“What do you propose?” Even as I spoke, I felt my hair begin to move about me. “A breeze, by God!” My heart soared, then fell back to earth. What good would a breeze do us now? Maybe a week ago, even three or four days, we might have been able to get enough fellows up from below to get ourselves underway, but now that was an impossibility.
“It is a breeze, Captain. Good and proper. And it’s not too late, not if I can do something about it.”
At that point, I didn’t care what that African bastard intended to do – I was not going to die, not after enduring so much.
“Do whatever you must, but do it quickly. Who knows how long this wind will last?”
“By your order, Captain, but it would be best if you were to keep to your cabin for a day or so.” His tone was menacing and insolent.
“You think it best? Free men we may be, but I’m still captain of this vessel and there’s a limit to –.” I stopped. If he could truly save us, I’d owe him my life and more besides. “All right. A day in my cabin.”
He looked at me from his hollowed out, sunken eyes, and his cracked lips pulled back from around his bloody stumps of teeth. “Oh, don’t you worry Captain. My plan will work out just fine.”
The smell from below decks has become almost unbearable. The odor of corrupting flesh is horrible enough, and now Moses’ concoctions add their own fetid stench, creating a dissonant aroma that makes the eyes water and causes bile and other poisons to rise up in the throat. I have no idea how the men in the hold can stand it. Or what Moses is up to.
I put down my quill. Something was going on below decks. Movement, and I could have sworn I heard a guttural moan, like the last gasp of someone in too great a pain to cry out. Whatever Moses was up to, it wasn’t working. I would have to help him dispose of the body.
I stepped out of my cabin. The sky was dark, but the breeze still blew. I made my way to the hatch and opened it. A wave of heat and the foulest stench imaginable rolled up to me. I gagged and coughed. Moses appeared below me wreathed in ghastly fumes, staring up from the depths like the embodiment of a malign African spirit. Behind him, something made a noise and a shadow flickered in front of the firelight, as though one of the crew moved behind him.
“What’s that? Has your medicine gotten someone up and able? I can scarce imagine a man able to stomach such an obnoxious potion as –”
Moses came up the steps toward me, pulling a dagger from his belt.
“Have you gone mad? I’m your captain!”
“That you are. And before long, I may well have need of you, but not right now. I’m in charge, at least until I have the rest of the crew up and moving again. Now, sir, I suggest you go back to your cabin, and turn over your key to me.”
“The rest of the crew?” The good news caused me to temporarily overlook his insubordination. “You mean you have got at least one man up and well?” I took a step down the ladder. “McGreevy? Quint? John Longshanks?” These men had been among the last of the crew to take sick, and all had at least been able to speak coherently when I’d last laid eyes on them.
Moses jabbed at my chest with the tip of the dagger. “Not another step, Captain. Be so good as to go back up the stairs and give me your key.”
I looked into his eyes. Something had changed, something within his very soul. I’ve looked into the eyes of a hundred men intent on killing me and never known such fear as I knew then. I reached into my pocket and produced the heavy skeleton key. He took it and roughly steered me back to my cabin.
“I’ll be seeing you before long now, Captain. Keep your spirits up and you’ll see the rum dives and cathouses of New Providence again.”
With a fierce shove he propelled me into the room. The door slammed behind me and the lock clicked. I heard a scraping, like a cask or something being dragged across the deck. An animal cry rent the air, a harsh, inhuman noise that sent icicles into my belly and made my heart pound like the drummer on a Turkish prison galley.
Now was the time to act, I realized, and hurled my shoulder against the door. It shuddered but did not give. I tried again, throwing myself at it so violently that I felt such pain as I had never known before shoot through me.
“The old Peril, she’s a stout ship, is she not?” Moses mocked me, his laughter muffled by the heavy oak of the wall and door. A series of cracks echoed in my head. They were nailing something across my door.
“Let me out, you damnable bastard!” I shouted through the keyhole, through which no light now entered.
“All in good time, Captain.” His voice was faint but discernable. “Your days of sailing aren’t over yet and soon we’ll have such a crew as has never been seen on any of the high seas. Mark my words, Captain, this ship is about to become the most infamous afloat.”
I walked away from the door and took a seat behind my table. I had little enough faith in Moses’ promise to spare my life. It was then that I recalled the ship’s log, sitting untouched for days on a corner of the desk. I knew Old Moses was illiterate so I opened the book and began to write. Someday, the log might find its way into somebody’s hands. If discovered by the authorities, it would prevent Moses from making any claims of being taken prisoner or held as a slave and being forced to participate in piratical acts. Should the book be discovered by a member of the Brotherhood, well, while we’re not as formal about things as the Royal Navy and do allow every freebooter among us a certain amount of latitude, even our most independent brethren take a dim view of mutiny, pure and simple. Pirate vessels have yardarms, too, and that accursed African wouldn’t be the first to swing from one for breaking an oath of loyalty. I opened the book and began to write.
The horrible stink from below decks is much diminished, but now I hear things, horrible noises that…
I don’t know how long I scribbled in that log, until at last I lay my head down and fell asleep in the middle of a passage. I awoke to the sound of gentle creaking. Something was not quite right. I stood and nearly fell as the deck moved suddenly away from me. By God! We were underway. I ran to the door of my cabin and pounded on it.
“Let me out, damn you! Let me out!” There was no response, save another of those chilling groans. I backed away. I remembered Moses’ words, and was now content to stay in my quarters. For the first time, despite my privations, I wished I had succumbed to the thirst, hunger and disease that had laid low my poor crew.
Now there were more noises from outside, a harsh sound of tearing wood and then my door opened. In stepped Moses, grinning like a damn fool.
“Greetings, Captain. Or shall I just call you ‘navigator?’ It doesn’t really matter what we call ourselves, for two things are clear to any mother’s son. First, I’m now in command of this ship. Second, I need your help to sail her, for I can’t set a course for all my years at sea.”
“Fine then.” I regarded him. “How long have we been underway? What direction are we headed?”
He smiled. “I figure generally west, since we were sailing that direction when we were becalmed. But I know that generally west is not quite so good as, say, west with a heading of so many degrees, or whatever that course ought to be.”
“I’ll set us a course for New Providence, then.” What choice did I have? I couldn’t go much longer myself without food or water, and he’d obviously schemed to turn the crew against me. I started toward the door. He stuck a heavy hand in my chest.
“I think it best if you stay in your cabin, sir – or now I guess I’ll be calling you Will, won’t I?”
“How am I to take readings from my cabin? I need to go above if I am to set any sort of useful course for us.” He gave me a look, for he’d obviously failed to think that bit of his stratagem through.
“All right, then. Come with me.”
I followed him up the short, steep stairs, onto the deck and uttered a cry of shock, for there was John Longshanks, gaunt as the last time I’d seen him, yet somehow up and moving about.
“How is this possible?” I started toward old Longshanks, when Moses caught my arm. “I wouldn’t get too close. Old John ain’t exactly himself these days.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, sir, in addition to bein’ a cabin boy and pirate, I’m also a priest of sorts as I told you.”
“What church would have a ruffian like you?”
“A church of the old gods. That’s right. Oh, they may have taken the form and names of your Christian saints, but they still accept the time-honored sacrifices and rites. That they do. And there’s where I found the solution to our problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“The undead, for want of a better term, friend Will. This ship is now crewed by 20 of the living dead.”
“My God.” Even a sinner like me was loath to turn to such unholy recourse. Cannibalism would have been better – at least the poor bastards’ souls would have found repose in death.
“Now don’t be getting all holy on me, -- not with your crimes, friend Will. Think of the advantage of this crew.”
“What do you mean?”
“A crew of 20 that can’t be killed, seeing as their already dead. A crew that won’t insist on shares of booty. Dogs that won’t ever get laid low by scurvy or drunk on rum. No feeding the, no pay, no upkeep. Just killers. Every dead man jack of them.”
I stumbled up the steps to the poop deck. The thought of sailing with a crew of dead men was enough to turn my stomach, I’ll grant you, but I also knew that with 20 fewer mouths to feed that same stomach would be full tonight. Fuller than it had been in a month.
We’d been sailing on the course I’d set for nearly a week now. While I can’t say I’d gotten used to the miserable creatures that lurched around me, at least I no longer feared them. Perhaps this was due in some part to getting some of my own strength back from having enough food for the last few days. I estimated we would reach New Providence in not more than a day or two. I would then leave the ship to Moses and his infernal crew and find my passage on another vessel, even if it meant working for a common tar for the rest of my days. Maybe I would forsake the sea altogether in the wake of all I had seen on this last voyage.
It was late and I made my way down to my cabin. Moses had allowed me to keep it, despite claiming the captaincy for himself. I crawled into my berth and was about to nod off when I heard the door open. Let me keep my cabin Moses had, but he’d held onto the key.
“Good evening, friend Will.”
“What do you want?” I peered into the blackness and could see shadows moving behind him.
“Well, I wanted to set something straight between us.”
Moses stepped into the room, followed by three of his decaying crewmen. “You see, old friend, when I told you this here crew didn’t require any rations, I may have misspoken.”
“Well, maybe misspoken isn’t the word. It was more of a lie.”
“That’s right, friend Will. They need fresh meat. Raw. About once a week or so. And, well, we haven’t made as much headway as I’d hoped.”
He stepped aside, and I could see the pale bodies creeping toward me, their unblinking eyes and waxy flesh shining in the candlelight. Their teeth clacked as they worked their jaws, with more of the creatures pouring in behind.
“No, no!” I reached for the dagger I now kept beneath my pillow and plunged it to the hilt into John Longshanks. He kept coming at me.
“Kill him! Kill him! His meats as good as mine!” I cried in a shrill voice I scarce recognized as being mine.
“They can’t kill the one who created them, any fool knows that. Just relax, Will. Let it happen. You’ll be one of them soon. Once they’ve had their fill.”
This story originally appeared in Dead Men's Tales, Fringeworks Publications, Melissa Black ed..