Advent Stories #14

63˚07’N, 52˚34’W

comp

Stars wheeling at his back, Captain Low comes on like bad weather, like something separated from Nature, a different kind of force, one driven by rum and pain and vengeance. Steel in his teeth. Blood on his hand. His own? He’s not sure. He doesn’t really care. No time to stop and think about injuries, men felled, kills made. Two weeks out of Liverpool on The Pride o’ The Mersey. The stink of gunpowder raking his nostrils, the sour taste of fear in his throat. Madness rising.

Fetter’s in his brain, scouring it out with smoke and shadow like a smithy’s iron. Jacob Fetter, the ocean’s bowel, the bottom-feeder, the shitehole. One month previous, on a rain-sodden November night, some dark harbour south of a moon they couldn’t see, north of wherever, hell most probably, Jake Fetter and his crew slithered in and butchered Captain Low’s men. All good men. All hard, mahogany men, weathertan and muscleknot, able to take their grog, maybe they’d have taken a keelhauling with barely a grunt.

Seven and thirty of us. Now we are but one.

That harbour ground, that battlefield… ice chased off by hot blood, turned to brown syrup by morning. Barrowloads of sawdust wheeled in. The corpses wheeled out, some of them in pieces. Fetter had stolen every man’s tongue, and done for every eye with a wooden fid.

Low had chased Fetter’s shadows from Plymouth to Portugal, from Brest to the Bering Sea. His new crew, a ragbag of scurfy rats handpicked from the dregs of humanity, fallen from a brothel half-cut, eager for work, know his name. Know his past. He has that pull. No strong men left. So he has to invite wraiths on board his ship.

Seven and thirty of us… still we are but one.

The crew talks and he drifts among them, learning, understanding, finding out. First Mate, Mr. Gray, makes his introductions while Low tries – and fails – to avoid the noxious blasts of air that shoot from between his teeth.

‘See Mr Kidney there, Captain, with the ulcerated leg that will not heal? He won’t have it taken off. He might be on his way out but he throws himself into every battle, first man up, first man in, a red flag wrapped around those weeping sores. “Shoot me,” he cries. “Shoot me and have done.” He wants his gold from you for that leg off, see. Amputation means no pay. Anything else, death for example, would be a bonus. This man has a great debt of pain to his past. And mark my words, Captain. He’ll never fall. He’s weak, but he’ll fight till his seams part. That dog’s drenched in bad luck. His leg will rot with him still using it before he gives up the ghost.

‘Mr Tamsin next, Sir, at the quarterdeck, folding the colours. Made of tar and wood and salt. Cut him, he’ll bleed seawater. Been a brother to these waves since he were a nipper. Survived a fall into shark-infested waters, once. Big one bit him in the chest, ripped his breathers open. He was so close to death he could have touched the ragged hem of Its cloak. Came back though, somehow. Came back and now you know whenever he’s near, for there’s the sound of the ocean as he pulls in another breath. Some round here won’t have it. They steer clear of him. Reckon he’s a ghost, or a warning.

‘This is all fascinating, Mr Gray,’ Low says, closing his eyes. ‘All fascinating and of great help to a man who likes a bit of character. But, see, and don’t take this the wrong way, Mr Gray, but, see, only man I care about, asleep, awake, only man I think about is Jacob Fetter.’

And Mr Gray slinks back, bowing his head, as they all do. He knows how they mutter behind his back; the deep corners of the ship’s waist contain a fug of gossip and concern.

He’s obsessed, he is. It’ll be his undoin’. Fetter’s won afore a vengeful blow’s been aimed.

He doesn’t mind the chatter. No crew of his have ever dreamt of mutiny. As long as they keep the decks swabbed, keep their eyes on the horizon and their hearts cold. Low claps his hands. Heads turn. Tired, soulless eyes, dogs’ eyes. Sharks’ eyes.

‘Word has it you lot are worthless,’ Low says. ‘Word has it your best days were ten years back. A shambling crew, you lot, now. Sleepwalking. Readying for your final bed. Well I’m not having any of that. You come work for me, there must be some steel left in your blood. Youth? Muscle? Means nought to me if there’s no fire to fuel it. And I know all about fire. I can see it in you. You might be tired, ready to drop even, but I know rage when I see it. I won’t ask you to do anything I’m not ready to take on myself. I’ll wash with you, eat with you, fight with you. And when we fight… Oh Lord, men. When we fight, it’ll be with the force of the Atlantic at our backs. I promise you ten gold doubloons each and a lifetime of rum, a ship to rival Queen Anne’s Revenge, if you help me run Jacob Fetter to ground. One last, great task. A defining time. History is upon you men, each and every one of you. What say you to that?’

He turns on his heels as the cheers pile against the sails, yet as swiftly as a mask torn from a face, his smile is gone. His heart has a fathomless chill.

*

The water, at night. Might be oil. Might be black ice. Might be blood. A gruel of dreams. A froth of souls, of brave men too afeared of showing the truth of their feelings. Men who died hard and did not cry. Did not scream for their mothers. As you will, Jacob Fetter. As you will.

*

33°09’N, 24°06’W

We hit glass. Sea becalmed. I can see the reflection of the gleam in my eyes when I lean over the side and look into it. I give the order for the powder room to be cleaned and the sails to be taken down for repairs. These men might be damaged, but I’ll not need to talk to them again; they don’t need me telling them where to put their noses when there’s no foam at the bow.

‘Those sails down, Cap’n, there’s going to be a lot of hot necks in an hour or two.’

I stare at the man addressing me. I don’t remember where I dragged this one from. Some cobbled street running with wine and blood in Lisbon? A beach filled with nets and bodies on the toe of Italy? His skin is like stewed tea. His voice marks him out from one of the ports of the south-west of England. Plymouth, perhaps. Or Bristol. His eyes will not fasten on me.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Robert, sir. Robert Greenhalgh.’

‘Mr. Greenhalgh, I’m grateful to you for your concern. At midday, the crew can go below decks for two hours. You, on the other hand, will stay here with me, monitoring the weather and watching for raiders. Do you understand?’

‘Clear as this water we’re sitting in, Cap’n,’ he said, though again I couldn’t shake the feeling that his pronunciation of the word was muddied with sarcasm or disdain.

I was about to take my leave of him when he shifted his stance. He squared up to me. I felt the hairs prickling at my neck; my wrist brushed the handle of my cutlass. He was unarmed. He wore a curious smile, though that might in part be helped by the scar that wormed up from his jaw across his left cheek.

‘The men are with you,’ Greehalgh said. ‘For now. But already there’s talk. How’s he know, this Captain Low, where Fetter is? How’s he know which way to turn?

‘I’m captain of this ship,’ I said. ‘That’s all you need, by way of an answer.’

Greenhalgh closed his eyes deferentially. I was unnerved by the sight of open eyes sinking into their position. A tattoo, not uncommon among pirates. I had seen it before. A reassurance, that they might continue to keep watch, even as they slept. Greenhalgh nodded, backed away.

‘Mr Gray!’ I shouted. I was angered by the nervousness this man had unearthed in my gut. I did not like him. ‘Mr Gray!’

It turned out Greenhalgh was not a direct acquisition of mine. I tried to keep my temper in check as Mr Gray explained how he had come to be on board at the time of our casting off from Liverpool. None of the men knew him. He’d been asleep in the crew’s quarters and gained favour by handing out pieces of dried mango.

‘He sailed with Captain Rainey out of Hull a dozen times,’ said Mr Gray. ‘He’s brought back heads from the Barbary Coast and some say he has a fortune in Chinese silver. He’s an experienced salt. He could be of help to us.’

‘He’s a stowaway,’ I said. I stared at the horizon, flatter than the underside of the rulers I used on my waggoners. I imagined Jacob Fetter out there, smoothing the water with his hands. ‘Watch him.’

*

Do I fear him? I sense him sniffing the waves at some dark prow, all the light from the stars hurtling into his eyes, giving him the vision of angels. And no matter how many miles divide us, he can see me. He can see the loose threads on the scarf at my throat, the beard, the long hair and the tricorn. He can see the tremor in my left hand, where the ligaments and nerves never quite healed after the brawl in Sour Heart’s Hollow. He can see the sweat in every pore. He can see the cloud over my eyes. He can see deep into the chambers of my heart where the blood moves cold and sluggish as slob ice in Antarctica. He sees me better than I see myself.

*

Doldrums.

The turtles we brought on board have all been devoured. We’re having to eat hard tack in the dark of the hold so as not to see the weevils in our food. Mr Tamsin caught an old porpoise. He argued that it wasn’t bad luck because it had risen to the surface to die anyway. He boiled it in the cauldron but it was bad eating. All other attempts at fishing have been in vain.

I cornered Mr Greenhalgh and asked him if he had any of his mango strips left. ‘No sir,’ he said. He offered me a piece of coconut.

‘Quite the larder, aren’t you sir?’ I said.

I challenged him about his illicit boarding of my ship. He apologised fulsomely and said that it had been an ambition of his to sail with me. ‘You are gaining a reputation throughout Europe,’ he said. ‘A fair man, a good Captain. A brother in a fight.’

‘You served under Captain Rainer?’

‘Yes sir. For eight years.’

‘And did you make good hauls in that time?’

‘Yes sir. In 1794 we overwhelmed a crew of seventy-five belonging to The East Wind, a schooner from Baltimore returning from the Orient. Spices. Silks. Ivory. Wine and olive oil. There were twenty of us in Captain Rainer’s sloop.’

Red Freedom, no?’

Greenhalgh smiled. ‘Yes sir. You know your history.’

‘I’m impressed,’ I said. ‘And flattered. Where is Captain Rainer now?’

Greenhalgh smiled again. I was irked by it. The man was able to convey his emotions without making them explicit in the things he said. He was patronising me. ‘I can’t tell you that, sir. Captain Rainer swore us all to silence.’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘And anyway, it’s Fetter I’m interested in. No clues there, I expect?’

A shake of his head. ‘The last I heard regarding Captain Fetter, he was alternating between the Mediterranean and the north-west coast of Africa. He works hard, sir.’

I nodded. ‘I work harder.’

I was about to take leave of him when he touched me gently on the elbow. I swallowed the urge to lash out at him.

‘Pardon my tongue, sir. I don’t mean to speak out of turn, nor to sow a seed, but Jacob Fetter captains a warship, the like of which has not been seen since Blackbeard’s day. He has a crew of one hundred and fifty. Young, hungry men. Fit men. You might well be obsessed with catching Fetter’s tail, but I suspect you occupy merely a tiny portion of his brain.’ He sucked his teeth. ‘You’re a memory. Not a concern.’

His heavy-lidded eyes. Eyes on eyes. Scar or no, the maddening suggestion of a smirk at his lips. I leaned in close. ‘Be careful, Mr Greenhalgh. As a stowaway, you’ve contravened the law. And I might, at any moment, decide to punish you for that.’

‘I am here to serve you, sir,’ he said. ‘If I have spoken out of turn, then I apologise. My words, always, are intended as an aid, nothing more.’

I sent him with Mr Horrocks to the cannon. ‘Prepare the ship for battle,’ I told them.

*

End of the fifth day in sleeping water, Captain Low, alone on the poop deck, watching the stars, remembering a day on a bluff overlooking Port Kincaid. His father teaching him how to find the Pole Star. How to navigate across oceans using only those points of light in the sky. They had built a fire together, Low impressing his father with his knowledge of tinder, of siting. He had knelt close to a knot of dry grass, sheep’s wool and down. Breathed gently upon the centre of the heat he had driven into the wood with his whittled stick. The barest tremor from his lips, a ghost’s kiss: the smoke thickened, its core a sudden yolk.

He feels that tremor now. Low opens his eyes to the fingers of air touching his face. The stars in the water turn suddenly indistinct, like chalk marks softened by a thumb.

‘Mr Gray!’ he calls, pulling off his shirt and unlashing the great halyard of the mainsail. ‘All hands on deck!’

*

They left us for dead, and Death had His fill. He took His time and picked the boat clean. But some of us He missed. The ones you’d have thought were first on His list: the crippled, the diseased, they slipped through His fingers. Fetter had six days on us. Six days before we got the sloop repaired and making a wake. We buried many dead. We swabbed the decks of a lot of blood. We put our brothers in the water. We drank ourselves to oblivion singing their names under a storm.

*

48°18’N, 29°47’W

The ship plunges on. The wind in our faces. A mist of spray in the air. Getting colder. The sweat of the lads on the ratlines. The occasional hit of tar, of strong wood, of spanked sails beating out our intent across the sea. Dolphins glint like bodkins sewing our route into the water. Hunger has sharpened our minds. No cloud. No land. Five days adrift, as still as corpses, a long time to lose yourself, to let him get away. But I was on to him. I knew we were heading the right way. North. Always North. He had no other direction in him. I saw his face in the powder of the stars and the strange rash of light in the deeps. Even as my hands and feet grew numb, my breath shocked to white, I could sense how he would feel as I crumbled him under my fingers. There was nothing to him. He was akin to these icebergs muscling up against my ship. He had an intimidating air, but he was drifting. And if I chipped away at him, bit by bit, one day he would collapse, reveal his cold, blue heart.

A noise from up in the nest. All eyes turned to the north-west. From the horizon, after a minute or so, a pale red colour bled into the night.

‘Mr Gray! A change of course if you please. Thirty degrees port.’

The light was dying by the time we were able to identify it. A ship on fire, its bow blasted into burned, black fingers. It was leaning hard on its starboard side, the keel lifting out of the water and all I could think about was an old, diseased whore I had visited in Rangoon when I was a young man, hauling herself out of a stinking bath. I sent out a party of six to investigate, led by Mr Gray.

They returned just after the sun slipped the horizon. Mr Gray was standing at the prow, his hands cupping his mouth. No survivors. No survivors. A report of what he had seen. A prediction for all of us on board The Pride. I don’t know.

All of the heads had been emptied of tongues, their eyes dashed out. I imagined a man in a room unfolding a sopping, crimson handkerchief.

*

In the dark and the rain. The swell and bottoming out of the ship. The fists of iced wind. Nothing to do but huddle and think. Sup the ladles of rum and gunpowder. You piss where you sit to keep yourself warm. You wonder how life might have gone had you made another turn as a boy on the shadow-line. The fingers of your hands are task-hardened, so calloused you can slice the ball of your thumb with a blade and you will not bleed. No chance of such luck with the heart. Still tender as a lamb’s. No great love arcs to strengthen it. No matrimonial blows. A novice in romance. You never married. You never had sons. Well, not that you knew of. Down in the bilges, away from the crew. Through the maggot-infested seams of the ship. Into the stench-black pits of wood and saline. Here you feel it is almost safe to cry.

*

Morning emerges. An albatross keeping pace off starboard. Stiff breezes from the south-east. Mist. A bone-coloured sun. Clean air. Mr Tamsin cooks one of the turtles rescued from The Clarion. We convene beneath the mainmast. I thank the men for their efforts. For their trust. I tell them the weather will not hold and that conditions will deteriorate. Some of the men are smiling at me as I speak, with genuine affection. I know these lads will follow me to the waterfalls at the edge of the Earth if I were to ask. Some are expressionless, determined. Others cannot meet my gaze, but they nod their heads. They know me. They believe in me. Their belief in me props up the sagging belief I have in myself. Was it ever there? Was it ever there?

The ship turns. The soft shadows realign themselves on deck. A black hand skids elongated over the devil’s seam, fingers splayed, unGodly, as if reaching for something it never deserved. A cry. A surge of bodies. Men grappling at the broken body of Mr Lerner tied against the bowsprit.

‘Cut him down,’ I call out, needlessly.

He spills to the deck. Somebody says, Mosey’s Law. Mr Lerner’s eyes are squint-tight shut. The tan in him has turned the grey of whaleskin. His teeth are clenched, protruding from the peelback lips as if making an attempt to escape. Perhaps it is a scream behind them that has created the shape. You might almost lever the ivories open, reach in and pluck it from the tongue. A glassy, fragile thing cast from the branches of the lungs: the outline of terror.

‘Turn him over.’ Your voice, but you’d swear you never opened your mouth. Mr Greenhalgh scoops his bare foot under the cadaver and flips him on to his guts. You bite down hard on a rebuke at the man’s insensitivity, because here’s madness. Mr Lerner’s back has been so thrashed by the cat that his spine shows through his swollen, lacerated flesh.

‘This was done after he died,’ Mr Greenhalgh says, picking at his teeth with a bent nail.

‘I’d have thought God the only being who might divine that knowledge, Mr Greenhalgh. Or are you keeping secrets from us? Do you want to tell us something? Do you want to confess?’

‘Dead men don’t sing songs,’ Mr Greenhalgh said, then turned his back on me, began scooping rope into his thick arms. ‘We’d have heard him squeal like a harpooned humpback. We’d have been able to do something.’

‘Then how did he die?’

Mr Greenhalgh turned around, that maddening ghost of a smile. The slow unblink of his eyes. The pale, staring tattoos. ‘I’m not the ship’s sawbones,’ he said.

‘Mr Lievesley!’ I did not take my eyes off that insubordinate rat.

The ship’s doctor assessed the body, and, nervously twiddling with his pince-nez, told me there were flecks of pink, bloody froth around Mr Lerner’s mouth, consistent with death by drowning. ‘I can’t confirm whether it’s salt water or drinking water.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. I called the men together. I told them that the person responsible for this murder would escape the death sentence if they came forward immediately. ‘In that case, my trust has been abused, as has that of the rest of the crew. Mr Gray, organise a watch. On deck and in the sleeping quarters. When the cuprit is unearthed, it will be Davy Jones’s Locker for him.’

*

Did my voice break, a little? As I was standing there, my hand shaking like some old man with the palsy, as I voiced my hard threats, was part of me trying to tell me that the murderer would never be exposed? That it was Fetter who had somehow transported his evil, by way of a storm cloud, perhaps, on to The Pride, and walked among my men without being detected. Perhaps the crew felt a prickle of cold as he passed, or a jag of pain behind the eyes. Perhaps they found they could not focus on his shadow as he moved. Their gaze slid away, repelled by his monstrousness. I had never set eyes on him. But he filled my mind like some inoperable canker. Sometimes I imagined him beneath the sea; its surface nothing but the vast acres of a billowing black cloak. When the storms began to blow, he would rise and, at some awful moment, he’d swing around and show me how the features sat on his face. And I believed upon seeing him, my eyes would simply turn to dust and trickle from my head.

*

Two days since we buried Mr Lerner at sea. The food is all but gone, save a stinking batch of coconut husks already gnawed to the quick. I gave the order to bring down any seabirds, but the skies are emptying, this far north. When the albatross returned, none of the crew were prepared to lift their muskets at it. My own misfired in the cold. I was barely strong enough to lift the weapon in my hand. Another two bodies were found in the evening by Mr Greenhalgh and Mr Rees. Rees told me that he had spent the whole day with Greenhalgh, making nets to see if they could catch some fish. Mr Rees is a good man, too thick for deviousness. I believe him, which lets Greenhalgh off the hook for Mr Lievesley timed the death at some point that afternoon. The dead men, Mr Abbott and Mr Lucy, were naked, their ribs gleaming through the mess of their chests like pieces of ivory buried in rubies. They had frozen to the cannon they had been draped over. Mr Horrocks had to use an axe to release them.

*

63°28’N, 29°47’W

While I was discussing weather systems and charts with Mr Carver, Mr Gray sidled up to me, in that way he has. He drew me to one side. I covered my mouth and nose, pretending be disgusted by the grisly show. I smelled Mr Gray’s carious words, regardless.

‘Mr Low. Sir. We’ve drifted a little. Down to this hard patch of weather I suspect. But we’re still on course. Give or take.’

I nod. Look at him. ‘All very good, Mr Gray. But there’s something else stuck in your throat. And it’s not ship’s biscuit, I’ll warrant.’

‘No sir.’ He appeared nervous, embarrassed even. ‘This Fetter, sir. Jacob Fetter. I don’t know him. I wondered if you might tell me a little about him.’

‘No reason why you should know him, Mr Gray. He’s my rogue, not yours.’

‘With respect, sir, we’re on this ship chasing his shadow. All for you. He’s as much a part of our nightmares as yours now. We deserve to know the shape of our quarry.’

I chewed on this for a while. But I could not disagree with him. ‘Jacob Fetter was born at sea. His mother was a shark. His father was a raft of dead coral. Some January night, in that unreserved glacial darkness that smothers the Earth perhaps once a year, the coral gave up its unHoly seed and the shark drifted through it. By the time she emerged from the fog, she was dead, and Fetter was fully formed in her belly. His mother, the shark, did not give birth. Fetter devoured her inside out. He has gills, Mr Gray. He is cartilaginous. His eyes roll back into his head when he takes a bite of his supper. If you get close enough to him, while he sleeps, and look into his black throat, you’ll see row upon row of serrated teeth reaching back into his gullet. He cannot eat anything that is dead. At the first hint of night, he must slip into the water. He must constantly be on the move. If he stops, he sinks to the sea bed and dies of suffocation.’

‘Mr Low…’

‘When he makes love, he rips his women open with a razored penis and slakes his thirst on their blood. When he prays, the moon turns red. If you see his shape in the clouds at midnight, you will go to sleep in fever and wake up blind. His breath is carrion. The wake of The Iron Mantis churns so mightily that typhoons emerge from the sea. I have it on good authority that when Fetter relieves himself overboard, the steam of his piss turns into phantoms that dissolve the skin.’

‘Mr Low…’ Whispered now.

‘I don’t know, William,’ I said, and he seemed more shocked by my use of his Christian name than anything previously uttered.

He stepped in closer to me, as if we were spies conspiring on a street corner. ‘The men, they are with you,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know how strong your credit with them will prove. They… we are pirates. We live for the chase, for the fight, for the silk and the sovereigns. We want to get drunk, and not on this watered-down piss. We want to fornicate and eat fresh food. We’re not stupid, Mr Low. We know this life, it’s either feast or it’s famine. But our pockets are deep. And there’s nothing at the foot of them. And you telling me you don’t know this man. You don’t know his size or his colour. His creed or his needs. It doesn’t put steel in my heart.’

‘He is where we are going,’ I said. ‘The burning ship must convince you of that.’

‘There are more pressing matters, sir. In my opinion. We have a killer on board. Where are the investigations? Where are the suspects?’

‘We are all suspects, Mr Gray,’ I said, staring into his sun-blasted face. ‘At least the body proved to me that at least one of us has some bite, some animal in him.’

‘Murder?’ said Mr Gray. ‘You condone it? Among our own?’

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘But this is no treasure hunt. This isn’t a year of festivities, all mates together drinking and whoring all the ports of the western seas. This is a blood hunt. This is vengeance.’

He was about to protest, but this time it was I to duck into his space, to drive the point home. ‘What would you have me do, William? Spend a day or two rooting out the bad apple? Mete out some brutal justice? And then back on to a cold trail, the men more resentful, more hungry? You say they’re with me, for now. Then let me strike while I have a backing. We can rootle through the muck after the deed’s been done.’

‘A backing, you say?’ Mr Gray’s voice was suddenly tired, breathy. ‘How many of us will be left once our bow is chopping at Fetter’s foam?’

‘One body, Mr Gray. One murder. There is no guarantee there’ll be more killing.’

‘And, Captain, there is no guarantee there won’t be.’

*

He comes for me, but not at night, not when I am alone, struggling to sleep. He comes when I’m in the middle of my toilet, or pinching my nose to drink down the slime of our water in the galley’s barrels. He comes when I’m sharing out the hardtack or stepping in to halt a squabble between shipmates. I see his shadow slide across the wall of my quarters like tar drawn into spiderish lengths. His breath is scentless; the cold has burned out all traces of his interior. He touches the skin of my throat and I feel every shred of me become the chill sludge of every dead thing found on the ocean bed. I can’t wake up screaming. No such relief. I have to bite on the panic. I have to force the smile. The men see one speck of this madness in me and we are all done for.

We go on. We must go on.

*

Mr Gray is up aft with the ‘bring ’em near’. He’s convinced land is less than a day away. Clouds on the horizon. I’m too weak to get off my bunk. I can no longer tell which of my hands is the damaged one; both shake like fury. Another body this morning. Mr Tamsin, frozen so hard to the deck that even Mr Horrocks’ axe would not shift him. Red splinters flew out at every blow. I saw Mr Kidney drooling.

Mr Dendy, in the crow’s nest, calls out. There is a clamour for the port side. Mr Gray points a confirmation. A little while later, a white line trembles above the horizon. Land. I’m barely able to hold myself upright, but now I’m cheering with the other lads. Where there’s land there’s food. Where there’s food, there’s scavengers. And where there’s scavengers, there’s Fetter.

It takes an agony of time to reach that solid, icy bluff, and another hour or two to find an access point where we can drop anchor. I order the armoury to be opened. Muskets for everyone. I doubt any will work in this cold, but the men deserve to have their courage bolstered. I feel only the slightest pang of doubt when I realise a gun is being passed to our secret killer. But events have overtaken us. Gun or no, the bodies will pile up.

I choose a landing party. Myself, Mr Greenhalgh, Mr Dendy, Mr Burbidge, Mr Taylor and Mr Horrocks. I am tempted to take Mr Lievesley with us, but again I must think of those left on board. I pull Mr Gray to one side.

‘William, I apologise. I know you would want to come with us, and God be my witness I wish you were at my side, but the truth of the matter is that I need you to be my eyes and ears back on The Pride. I trust you with my life. And it vexes me to say that you’re the only person I do trust right now.’

‘Then if that’s the case, we ought to turn around and sail back to Liverpool. Forget all this. Forget about Fetter. We are dead men, Captain.’

‘If I go back without facing him, death would be the least of my worries.’

‘Sir…’

‘My decision is made, Mr Gray. You have command of The Pride. If we are not back within a single arc of the moon, you may cast off.’

I do not look back. Mr Greenhalgh and Mr Taylor take up the oars and row us into a cathedral of ice. The hollows of the bergs flicker with the palest blues and greens. A pirate’s eye is well-trained for prettiness; yet all the treasures he has plundered over a lifetime of robbery and violence cannot prime him for these sights. The bluster and blague of the ship has been shed; we drift in awed silence. I wonder about Fetter, about his eyes trawling these same lofted ceilings and glittering buttresses. I wonder if his soul might have lifted. If he might have felt the cold splinter of his own mortality.

Is he running away or drawing me in?

The colours change. Blood frozen into the snow as we clamber on to the ice shelf. Something has been ripped apart here: blood has hosed in lines over twelve feet away. No man was the author of this atrocity. We fan out.

Mr Burbidge finds what remains of the corpse a little while later. His tarred petticoat breeches had been torn open. A blue and white checked shirt was similarly ravaged; a few feet away, a woollen cap and some shoes contained a mush of blood and fat and bone. Mr Horrocks is copiously sick. I order the men to follow me.

I feel panic that we might have arrived too late. I don’t want my confrontation with Fetter to be nothing more than my feet scuffing through his remains. But some glint in the clean knife of the air tells me he lives on. Two hours of tramping through snow, the cold numbing our edges, and we find his ship. We stand in shocked silence. There is a hole in the hull and the mainmast has been downed. The ship leans against the ice shelf as if pausing for breath.

‘Careful, lads,’ I advise. We watched the ship for some time, but there was no movement. A hundred and fifty men. Nobody on board? I couldn’t swallow that, yet I bid my companions follow me and approached that crippled vessel.

Once we had found a way on to the listing deck, we quickly searched for food. There might have been crew below decks, but the smell of fresh meat and bread was too great to resist. The doors hanging off their hinges, the blood on the ropes, told us that if any crew were on ship, they were no longer alive.

A wet, growling sound rose into the torn sails.

‘Bear,’ said Mr Greenhalgh, as if he were casually describing something passing along the harbour in Hull.

I followed his gaze down to the ice. Two large polar bears were circling, wagging their heads this way and that whenever they reared up on to their hind legs. Their muzzles were sopping and pink.

We ate quickly, but sensibly. Too much and we’d suffer stomach cramps which would be the death of us out here. We packed as much as we could carry for our mates on The Pride. And then, as we were preparing to leave, Mr Burbidge touched me on the arm.

‘Begging pardon, Captain. I thought I heard something below.’

With the food inside me, I felt my daring return. I bid Mr Taylor accompany me. He unsheathed his musket. My instinct was to examine the captain’s cabin first, to see if any trace of Fetter remained. I wanted to inhale his stink, top up the hatred, but the cabin was empty of anything to damn the man. It had the air of a room seldom used; perhaps Fetter’s disdain for the British Navy ran to a refusal to inhabit the quarters of the officers he had usurped. In that, I felt a grudging admiration.

‘Captain Low!’

It was mr Horrocks, although I hadn’t recognised his voice: it was crippled with shock. I found him leaning over the officer’s padlocked water barrel, trying to keep his gorge in check. The cold had prevented the bodies from decay, but the carnage here was worse because it appeared stylised, rehearsed, even. It did not possess the randomness, the savage fingerprint of nature. There must have been a dozen men entangled. I could not work out where they began or ended.

‘Pull yourself together, Mr Horrocks,’ I said. ‘What did you expect to find down here? Tea and cake?’

Mr Greenhalgh on the stairs, calmly picking his teeth. ‘No polar bear did this,’ he said. ‘And those outside have been planted. Bite marks post-mortem. Not the cause of death.’

‘Mainsail mast was taken down with an axe, sir,’ called Mr Dendy from midships.

‘And that hole was blown from the inside out,’ Mr Horrocks observed, rising palely from the belly of the vessel. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. ‘No cannon fired upon this ship.’

‘This is a trap,’ said Mr Dendy.

‘No,’ I said. ‘This is a diversion.’ I gazed at the bodies before me. The ship’s hauls were scattered about them. The coins, pearls and emeralds were densely coated with the eructations of the dead. It was like some ghastly confection, something one might be served in the dining rooms of palaces in Vienna or Versailles.

‘I for one,’ said Mr Horrocks, ‘would be happy to be diverted. Can we go back to The Pride now?’

‘Not yet,’ I said. And, suspecting that his body would not be here: ‘We must find Fetter’s remains.’

I don’t know why I passed this profane, unactionable order. I had no more idea of what Fetter looked like than the others. But I reassured them that I would identify his corpse, should the others’ doughty redistribution of the bodies unearth him.

We worked hard and fast, unknotting limbs, stacking the dead like firewood. We none of us touched the loot; they seemed unreal, unimportant, although there was enough wealth here to see the crew of The Pride, and their families, into dotage and beyond.

We moved through the ship. The gold and the gore strewn with equal abandon. By the end of it, Mr Horrocks was whistling.

‘Fetter did this,’ I said. ‘He did all of it.’

‘Why?’ asked Greenhalgh, his cool little smile suggesting he knew the answer.

‘He’s afraid,’ I said. ‘He’s been looking over his shoulder fo so long he’s got a crick in his neck.’

‘Afraid of you?’ asked Greenhalgh.

‘He’d be wise to be,’ I said.

‘Our time’s almost up,’ Greenhalgh said. He blinked slowly. Time turned into something ice-coated. The tattoo became his gaze became the tattoo. I know longer registered which was which. Maybe he had eyes in the back of his head. He could see me at all times.

‘I’m sending the crew back to The Pride,’ I said.

‘What about you?’

‘Us,’ I corrected him.

‘Us? I don’t follow.’

‘That’s right, Mr Greenhalgh. I’ll be following you. We go on alone. Until Mr Fetter turns up.’

I sensed the others staring at us.

Despite the cold, the breath from our throats furring the air, the temperature in that cabin felt tropical.

‘Sir?’ Mr Dendyburbidgehorrockstaylor said. I don’t know who. I didn’t care. There was just me and Greenhalgh and his butterfly eyelids.

‘Go back to the ship,’ I said.

The light might have faded. The others might have gone. We might have frozen to death and what I was looking at was the last thing the back of my eyes registered. But then…

‘After you, Captain.’

‘No, Mr Greenhalgh. I insist.’ I waved him to the door with my musket.

Once upon the ice, he hesitated. He did not look at me when he asked: ‘Which way, Captain? I see no footprints to tell us Mr Fetter passed this way.’

In his shadow, I looked down at the snow. ‘Oh, but I do, Mr Greenhalgh,’ I said, and prodded him. North.

 

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2 thoughts on “Advent Stories #14

  1. I enjoyed this very much and would like to share it on FB. I kept your site on my favourites about two years ago and couldn’t remember why. Now I know.

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