Fantasy pirate ship pirates haunting

Ghost Ship

By James Van Pelt
Oct 21, 2020 · 4,223 words · 16 minutes


Photo by Zoltan Tasi via Unsplash.

From the author: Perfect for Halloween! A haunted ghost ship, pirates, and a little girl who just wants to go home.

Arima prowled the deck in the dark, recoiling a messy rope, carefully placing loop on loop until the coil was perfect.  Fog covered the moon, but the mist glowed in its thinness, casting an imperfect light.  She stacked scattered buckets next to the mops, replaced a belaying pin to its hole in the gunwale, put an awl and hammer she found under a bench into the tool cupboard, and straightened the restraining net over the hatches.  When she finished, she went below deck to tidy the sailors’ sleeping area.  They’d raise a superstitious babble about lined up shoes and neatly folded shirts, but Arima didn’t care.  She had to do something with her time.  When she finished, she retreated to her hiding place in the hold to sleep.

The Wild Swan’s sailors didn’t look after Arima—she stayed out of their way and took care of herself.  She had no memory before the ship when she woke up shivering under a wet blanket in the Swan’s hold, rocking with the storm, listening to timbers creak and canvas snap.  Beneath the flooring slats, bilge gurgled about drowning; and a rat perched on a burlap bag, its eyes black, shiny and dead.  Her hands smelled like wet wood and sea weed.  She knew her name and that she was ten, but she didn’t know how she knew.

Soon, Arima discovered that everything on the ship besides her was dead.  The dead sailors couldn’t see her, but she was sure that the dead cat could.  It hissed, sometimes when she passed, or it would stare.

She listened to ship sounds.  It seemed the Wild Swan only sailed in heavy seas or fog.  That was a part of its curse.  Over time, she became accustomed to the pitching decks, and the salt spray that soaked her if she went topside, but she never got used to the wind’s piercing cold, no matter how she bundled up. 

When Arima woke, she was hungry.  She crawled from the nest she made for herself deep in the hold, behind the heaviest storage, where the sailors never went, and moved by feel until she came to the dim square of wavy light at a ladder’s top.

“We’ll play cards,” said a voice above her.

“We always play the damned cards,” said another.

She crept up the ladder.  Two sailors sat on stools under a lamp that swayed, casting wild shadows around the room.  Behind her, in the failing light, full hammocks cradled other sailors, their arms or legs hanging out.  Some snored loud enough to be heard over the ship noise.  The stairs to the galley rose beyond the two card players, though.  She’d have to go around them.  Pressing her back to the hull, she sidled behind the bigger man who smelled of rum, nutmeg and sweat.

The small one looked over his cards at his partner as if trying to read his hand.  Arima froze.  It was if he was looking at her.

The big man shivered.  “There’s a cold spot, and I’m sitting in it.”

“The ship is always cold.”

“We’re haunted, I tell you. A spirit’s walking.”

The small man scowled.  “Shut up and play. We’re the ghosts, mate. If there was another spirit, I’d ask him to sit down and lay a bet.  Better company than you. Put gold on the table.”

Arima waited until the large man dug into his purse to continue to the stairs.

No one slept on the main gun deck.  A sailor carrying a rag and a lamp wiped a cannon.  Even with the gun ports closed, wave-driven water sprayed through.  He tightened the oilcloth over the cannon balls stacked behind the gun.  The hatches were battened against the sea, so it was impossible to tell if it was day or night outside, not that it mattered much on the Wild Swan.  The sun never shined on her.

In the galley, she opened the cheese bin.  When she’d first appeared on the Swan, the bin had been full, but now a fraction of the last wheel remained.  She cut a small slice.  The other bins were equally low or empty.  Over time she’d eaten the stores that would have fed thirty men for weeks.  None of them ate, and the food never turned bad.  No weevils in the bread.  No maggots in the meat. The drinking water remained fresh.  Fruit never spoiled.  She wondered how ghost food sustained her, but it tasted fine and was filling.  She decided a strange magic must be at work on board, maybe the same magic that brought her here.

On deck, she discovered low-hanging clouds almost brushed the crows nest and huge rolling waves like great green walls advanced on the ship, but no rain and little wind.  Barefoot, she grabbed a taut shroud coming off the main mast, then swarmed up the ratlines, the ropes between the shrouds like ladder steps, until she was high in the rigging. Resting a hand on the mast, standing on the topgallant, Arima surveyed the ship that seemed miles below.  From here, she could touch the clouds.  Moisture coated canvas, rigging and hardware, but she had been in the sails so often that the footing didn’t make her nervous.  Of all the places, Arima loved the rigging most.  Being alone high above the deck seemed right, not sad.  The sea and wind vibrated the lines. 

Her second favorite spot where sailors were unlikely to stumble over her was the bow.  She clamored over piled rope and folded canvas to the front of the ship as waves lifted the Swan skyward.  Poised for a moment at the top, Arima saw waves behind waves that vanished into the corduroy sea before the Swan slid down the long, glassy slope.  She looked back on the ship, where the first mate manned the wheel.  Seamen clung to the rigging, adjusting sails.

Over time, Arima learned some of their names.  Ship Surgeon Miller joked with the men and led them in song.  Quartermaster Schmidt rolled dice by himself on the quarterdeck when he was awake.  The boatswain, a dark-skinned, surly sailor who mumbled constantly, never came on deck. He wandered among the stores in the dark, taking inventory by candlelight.  She wondered what he thought of the diminishing food supplies.  And then there was the captain.

Even though the ship never berthed, it never made port, Captain Sheridan kept his crew busy making repairs and scrubbing the deck.  He stood tall and broad with black hair and full eyebrows. He wore a dark-blue coat that he never buttoned regardless of the weather.  Other than issuing orders, Arima had never seen him talking to his men, and they didn’t talk to him.  He existed friendless on the ship.  He often took the wheel or used his telescope; he strolled the deck with hands behind his back.  The wind when it blew, ruffled his hair.

Captain Sheridan emerged from his cabin, looked to the sails, then walked toward her.  She stayed still as he approached.

Arima’s first day on board, she’d tried talking to the men.  “Hello,” she said to a sailor, “I’m  lost.  Can you help me?”  But he continued carving a piece of bone he held on his lap.  He didn’t look up.  He didn’t seem to feel her when she tapped his shoulder to get attention.  The second sailor was the same.  The third, though, sat on the deck, sewing a patch into a sail.  That day, fog draped the Swan in dark, damp sheets.  The sails dripped, and when a breeze stirred them, water shook loose like rain.  “Hello,” she had said.  The sailor paused in his work and tilted his head, looking puzzled.  Arima nearly jumped in excitement. “Can you help me?”

The man cast his gaze left and right as if he’d been struck blind, and for a moment Arima wondered if he was sightless since he looked past her and around her, but not at her.  Suddenly, though, he stopped searching, his eyes locked on her.  “Mother of God,” he exclaimed as he dropped his tools.  He ran below deck, leaving Arima confused.

Later, long after she’d given up trying to get help from the sailors, she heard them talking about a ghost.  The sailor who had run away wasn’t the only one who glimpsed her.  She heard tales about the spirit of a child who walked the ship.  They argued about her.  “How can there be a haunting here? We are the cursed ones.  We are the dead,” said the Master Gunner. “We are paying for the Captain’s obsession.”

The ship’s carpenter said, “We shared the obsession.  Plenty of guilt for all.  No one shouted, ‘Give that ship aid, Captain.’  We wanted bonuses and the honor too.  The curse is ours.”

The Master Gunner snarled. “Only the Captain could have ordered us about. It didn’t matter what anyone else wanted, but we are sailing forever in purgatory, never to set foot on land, never to be released. More than two hundred years at sea.”

The Surgeon said, “We may be ghosts on a ghost ship, but that little girl, that apparition, is a demon. If she touches you, you will burn in Hell forever.”

“Do you think Hell is dry?” asked the carpenter. “I might take dry over this water-logged tub.”

The captain stepped over the same ropes and canvas that Arima had traversed to reach the bow.  She pressed her back to the hull to stay out of his way.  He gripped a rigging line, put his foot on the gunwale and looked to the sea.  Above him, the fore stay sail bulged in a breeze that didn’t reach the deck.

“I want to go home, Captain,” she said.  He regripped the rope to compensate for the ship’s pitching.  She reached out to touch his leg.  The pants were cold and wet with spray, but he didn’t react.  “I want to go home!” Arima pounded his leg with her fist.  He didn’t move.  Finally, exhausted, she lay still and looked up at him.  Absently, as if he had an itch, he slid his hand down to his shin and rubbed it. 

He said to no one, to the wind perhaps, talking to himself, “We’re never going home.”

He turned back toward his cabin, walking as if he carried the crew’s lives on his head.  In the first weeks she’d been aboard, she tried communicating with the sailors.  She wrote messages in the daybook.  She spelled out her name in dried beans on the main galley table.  She yelled in their ears when they lay down, but the things she left scared them, and when they did see her, they ran.  Arima realized she terrorized the ghosts.  She was their bad dream.  When she could get through, they became miserable and fearful.  They talked at night in their hammocks about families they’d left behind who were long dead now.  About girl friends who must have met others, fell in love, married, raised children, and forgot them.  They were not cruel men.  After she’d listened for many nights, Arima grew sad.  They suffered for whatever sin they’d committed so long ago.  She felt sorry for them, so she straightened their belongs and found their lost tools.

The Wild Swan rode the waves like a carriage on a hilly road.  Sails creaked.  Tackle rattled.  Ropes thumped against the masts.  And behind the noisy ship, an even noisier ocean hissed against the hull, slapped at it angrily. Sucked and sloshed, splashed and sizzled, smelling of salt and clouds.  Arima propped herself up, watching the sea.  It would be easy to take the extra step, climb over the rail and drop into the immensity.  She imagined the ship sailing from her until it became a speck atop a wave.

She shook her head, suddenly afraid of her own thoughts, then headed back to the galley.  In a fruit bin, she found the last orange, which finished the fresh produce.  The biscuits would be gone in a couple days.  She could stretch the cheese and salted meat for a month.  Why was she on board? Who was she? Did she have parents who missed her? Was she cursed too?       

The cook, a grizzled man who wore a dirty scarf over white hair, walked with a limp and whistled tunelessly, came into the galley after her.  He opened an empty bin, looked sadly where food used to be, then said, “Most useless man on the ship.”  He slammed it shut before climbing down the ladder to the card game and hammocks.

“Ship ahoy!” called the lookout.  Arima rushed up the stairs ahead of a handful of seaman.  They seldom saw other ships.  The first one she’d seen was a tanker that never came within hailing distance.  This one, though, grew closer and larger every minute.  A huge white ship, multiple decks that towered above the top of the Wild Swan’s main mast.  The waves that carried the wooden vessel so easily, passed under the great boat without rocking it.  Orange-covered lifeboats hung from the ship’s sides.  People walked along the railings, too far for Arima to see their faces.  A sign painted near the stern read “Royal Caribbean” and the one at the bow said, “Independence of the Seas.”

“We could give her a broadside,” said the Gunner’s Mate.  He leaned on the railing next to Arima. 

“They’d never even hear it,” said a seaman.  “What kind of ship is that?  It’s big as a city.”

The Gunner’s mate scratched his chin. “The world’s moved on.”

“That’s your world, isn’t it?” said the Captain behind her.

Arima leaned over the gunwale, straining to see.  The huge vessel was only five-hundred yards away.  “I’m here!” she yelled, waving her hand, but the ship powered on, leaving the Wild Swan in its wake.  She wondered if she jumped overboard if someone would spot her in the water; or if a passenger, looking out on the ocean, a preoccupied passenger whose mind cut loose a little from the day-to-day reality on board, glimpsed the mythical ghost ship beside them, a tall-masted brigantine, sails full of wind, doomed sailors manning her deck, and one little girl trapped with them.

A voice in her ear whispered, “They’re from your world, aren’t they?”  She turned.  The Captain’s face was only inches from her own.  He rose, yelled up to the wheelsman. “Take her straight south.  We’ll follow that ship.”

“We can’t catch her, sir, even with the wind,” said the Sailing Master, a large map rolled under his arm. “And what would be the use?”

“Do you have a better place to go?” said the Captain.  He looked down directly at Arima, who was stunned.  He was seeing her, speaking to her. “I’ll be in my cabin,” he said. “Visit me.”

When she closed his cabin door behind her, he sat in his large chair by the stern cabin windows.  “You’re here, aren’t you,” he said, squinting at the door.  “Sometimes I think I see you, and other times I know you are there but invisible to the senses.”

“Can you hear me?” Arima said.  Goosebumps jumped onto her arms and legs.

He turned his head.  Maybe he did hear a bit of her, like a mosquito buzz just at the edge of perception.

“Or I am going crazy? Not that I think the gods would give me such a release.  Insanity, I mean.”  He studied his hands on his knees.  When he walked the deck, Arima thought he was too young to captain a ship, but in his cabin, the responsibility aged him.  Suddenly he looked like a man who had been at sea for more than two hundred years. “We took on a challenge.  Deliver our cargo in three days.  No one made that trip in three days before, but the Wild Swan runs before a favorable wind better than any ship I’ve sailed. We could have stopped at the foundering sloop; it would have delayed us just an hour to aid her, but they were close to shore. I was sure others would help her.  They could even have swum, I thought.  We didn’t stop.  When we delivered our cargo, while we celebrated and took on fresh stores, I heard that all on the sloop drowned.  When we made our next port, through terrible weather, we anchored, took the dinghy to the dock, but we could not touch the ladder as if all we saw was smoke.  We do not eat.  We do not die, although God forgive us we all have tried.”

“I don’t know why I’m on board,” said Arima.  She moved a map from the other chair in the room and sat.  Captain Sheridan flinched when the parchment settled to the floor.

“You are adrift,” he said, “but not like us.  I think you must be a living person.  Your curse must be terrible.  What happens when you starve to death on a ghost ship?”

The Captain rose to study a map on a table in the room’s center.  He switched from map to map, including the one at Arima’s feet.  “I don’t know where we are.  We seldom see the coast and never stars for navigation, but the ship we chase calls itself the Royal Caribbean. There may be cause for hope.”  He used a magnifying glass to read the map’s markings, and he didn’t speak again.  Arima grew tired and wandered in and out of sleep. When she opened her eyes, the Captain was gone.

She looked at his map of the Caribbean Sea that he’d left on the table, a vast stretch of water with islands to the east and north, and continents to the south and west, all with exotic names: Hispanolia, Barbados, Tabago, marked with the countries who ruled them, the Dutch, French and English.  Someone else might be willing to starve to death, but she decided that it would not be her. 

On deck the wind blew from almost directly astern, pushing the Wild Swan north at the best speed Arima had seen.  Night had fallen.  Spray flew from the bow as the ship plunged forward.  Under the watch lamp, Captain Sheridan stood at the wheel, one hand holding a compass, the other keeping the ship on course. The best way to leave would be on a lifeboat, but she could see no way to lower one without help.  She doubted she could row it even if she did manage to launch it. She could make a raft, figure out how to get it into the water, and then paddle or sail until she hit land.  The ghosts might not be able to touch the shore.  She wasn’t dead, though, at least she didn’t think she was.  If she could make landfall, she bet that she could touch the sand.  She would be able to walk until she found people. She could save herself, but she’d have to work fast.  Her craft would have to be built and launched before the sailors awoke.

An hour later, she’d winched enough lumber from the hold to construct a raft.  Difficult work to do in the dark.  The cargo boom solved her problem of getting the raft into the water, though.  It rotated so that when the raft was finished, she could raise it whole, move the structure over the rail, and then lower it.  When the raft was in the water, she could climb down a rope, board her craft and cut it loose.

She laid out the boards and began to lash them together.

The Captain’s voice startled her.  “You are a brave one, I’ll give you that.”  He sat on a barrel, a dark shape in the night, overlooking her effort.  “Where will you row, child?  What will you do when the ocean raises itself and dashes your hopes to splinters?  I doubt that Vice Admiral Lord Nelson himself could navigate your raft across a country pond in a spring breeze.”

He hopped off the barrel, pulled on the first board she had tied to another, which unraveled easily.  “Wait until morning.  Every day you are alive is a reason to hope for the next one.  This . . .” he dropped the rope onto her raft, “. . . would be suicide.”

Arima couldn’t tell if the Captain could see her or not.  In the moonless, starless night, anyone could be a ghost.

In the morning, the wind had settled to a gentle push, slowing the Wild Swan, and a thick fog hovered over the sea, swallowing the top of the main mast.  Arima saw hundreds of yards horizontally as if the fog and sea sandwiched the clear air between.  The waves calmed.  Sailors clung to the rigging, repositioning the sails.  Captain Sheridan still steered.  She wondered if he had stayed there since he spoke to her.

“We are too close to shore, Captain,” called the Sailing Master who stood at the rail, a marked lead line in hand.

“Apprise me of the soundings as necessary.”

Arima looked to the port side.  For the first time since she had been on the ship, she saw land, a white beach with palm trees beyond, only a few hundred yards away.  The air smelled jungle green.  She ran the length of the deck and up the stairs onto the quarterdeck.

“You could jump,” he said, “if you can swim.” He watched the shore closely, moving the wheel to adjust course. Did he know that she was standing beside him?  “I think the ship we followed, the Royal Caribbean must be here, but I have to be sure.  Leaving you on a desert island would only be another kind of death.”

“Do you recognize it, Captain?” said a sailor in the rigging. 

“Cozumel, I believe.  We resupplied here long ago.”

Arima stared into the trees.  All she needed was a sign of human habitation.  She didn’t even have to be able to swim.  If she took a board with her, she could cling to it and kick her way to land.

The Royal Caribbean came into view first, anchored in front of them, a great white mountain of a ship, but now hotels replaced the forest.  On the beach, cabanas and furled umbrellas emerged from the fog.

“Drop anchor!” shouted the Captain. “Take in the sails.”

Arima would not have to swim to shore.  Captain Sheridan directed the men to lower a boat and drop a rope ladder to it.  He clambered down.  When he took his place at the oars, he looked up.  “Are you coming?”

She sat in the bow of the boat as the Captain rowed.  A stingray swam under the boat, a gliding gray shape longer than she was tall.

“I have learned that if I look to the side, away from you, I can see you most often,” said the Captain as he rowed easily.  He was a powerful man.  The boat, as heavy as it was, jumped forward when he pulled on the oars.

“Thank you for doing this,” Arima said.  The Captain didn’t answer, and soon she saw beach sand under the boat and Captain Sheridan rested on his oars.

“This is as far as I can go.  You can walk from here.”

Arima jumped out.  The water was warm and came up to her waist.

The Captain reached toward her.  “Take this, would you, to remember us?  And if you ever dare to tell the living about your adventure, say that the Captain of the Wild Swan is eternally sorry to all whom I have hurt, both the people who drowned and to my crew. I should have been punished alone.”

He dropped a coin into her hand, a worn doubloon, a bit of tarnished gold.

Arima nodded, then waded ashore.  When she reached the beach, she sat, exhausted, and watched as the Captain rowed away.  She’d never seen the Wild Swan from outside the ship.  The wood was dark and beaten.  The sails looked more ragged than she thought they were when she climbed among them.

The Captain reached her, climbed aboard. His men helped him over the rail. It was the only time she’d seen them aid him in any way.  The Sailing Master clapped him on his back. Did the crew understand what the Captain had been doing?  Did they know that he’d taken them into a port that none of them could ever enjoy, that he dangled in front of them the very thing they could not have to save their “ghost”?

She was dumbfounded.

Then the Wild Swan glowed as if on fire.  The fog had parted. Sun poured down on the brigantine for the first time in two centuries.  Men looked up.  Some raised their hands, palms out.

And then gradually, beautifully, the ship faded and swirled.  A flock of seagulls flew through the old ship, beating their way toward shore.  Their wings whispered as they cut through the air.  Arima watched as they pivoted and flew along the water line.  When she looked back, the Wild Swan had vanished as if it never had been.

Arima pushed herself off the sand and walked toward the nearest hotel.  She fingered the doubloon in her pocket. She wondered if a restaurant would accept it for breakfast.

This story originally appeared in Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."