by Dustyn McCormick
The old sea captain was sitting by himself when I entered the bar. If it hadn’t been for the picture my father gave me, I wouldn’t have pegged this old man for the hard charging, fierce fighting captain my father told stories about.
His salt and pepper hair was neatly trimmed; his white beard had not a hair out of place. I could see a brown leather coat hanging on the back of his chair. A plain white tee shirt stretched across his chest and looked like it was ready to rip if he flexed his arms.
A half-empty mug of beer sat on the table in front of him. He took a long drink as I approached. His weather beaten face spoke of a hard working life. He looked at me as he placed the mug back on the table. His right eye was foggy and blind, the left was sparkling gunmetal grey. It felt as though both looked straight through me.
Looking into those eyes made me want to turn around and walk out. I reminded myself that this was a friend of my father, and that my father had insisted I meet him before signing on with a maritime salvage crew.
I sat in front of the old captain. He continued to stare at me as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket, opened them, pulled one out, and lit it. He exhaled blue smoke without ever removing his eyes from me.
“So, you’re old Sam’s boy.” It wasn’t a question. His voice was deep and full of gravel.
“Hmm. Get yourself a drink boy.”
I stood and walked to the bar. I could feel his eyes on me as I ordered another beer for him and one for myself as well. His mouth split into a hint of a grin as I sat his mug in front of him.
“My father speaks highly of you, sir,” I tried to break the silence.
“Good man, you’re father.”
We lapsed back into silence as he smoked. After what felt like the longest cigarette in history, he drained the last of his first beer.
“What does she sound like to you, boy?”
“Ex-excuse me?” I stammered.
“The sea, boy. Your dad said she been calling you.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Listen boy. I spent thirty years of my life, man and boy, on the sea. I sailed with good and bad crews. Never did I sail with man, woman, or child who never heard the calling of the sea.” He took a long drink.
“I guess, I guess I haven’t thought about it,” I admitted.
“She always calls. Some hear her like a mother calling her young ones home for dinner. Others hear a mom yelling them home for a beating. Like obedient children they all come home.”
“How did she call you?”
“Me? Ahh, she called to me like a tempestuous lover calls you back to bed.”
“You know it’ll be exciting, you know it’s going to hurt, and you know you wouldn’t give it up for the world,” he said wistfully.
“You gave it up though.”
“That I did.”
“Get me another drink, I’ll tell you.
“I wasn’t but a young pup when I first heard the call. This was near forty years ago. Too young to join the Navy, I stowed away on a merchant ship. I remember that voyage like it was yesterday. Not that I saw much of the sea, mind you.
“Wasn’t out of port but three days when the ship’s cook found me. He hauled me in front of the captain. Spent the rest of the trip in the galley, helping that mean bastard of a cook keep the crew fed. Wasn’t allowed on deck. When we got back, I would’ve been thrown in jail but the crew took a liking to me. Being an orphan, the captain decided to adopt me. Only way he could keep me on board.
“By the time I was old enough to join the Navy, I was already a respected member of the crew and fourth in command. The captain learned I had a skill for navigation and there weren’t no job I wouldn’t do. Not much need for the Navy then, in my opinion. I stayed on.
“Soon I was given my own ship to command. That’s when the pain started. See, a captain is the master of his ship; if he don’t own that ship, then he’s a puppet. Now, I don’t mind following orders, but ferrying cargo, that got old fast, even as captain.
“I sold everything I owned, took out a loan, and bought my first ship. She was a rickety thing; damn near spent more time trying to keep her afloat than we did sailing her. Best damn years of my life, those were.
“Now, along with a certain skill at navigation, I found I had a nose for finding old sunken ships. I said the hell with being a merchant and started hunting old wrecks.” He looked right at me then. I had no idea he had once been a salvager.
“Met your dad about then. Hell of a good man and diver.” He took another drink and lit another smoke. I waited for him to talk again.
“I ain’t admitting to nothing. If what I’m about to tell you leaves this table, I’ll deny everything and make sure the only ship you leave shore on is a leaky dingy, you understand, boy?” His eyes nailed me to my seat and sealed my mouth. I nodded.
“Sometimes, wrecks were hard to find. By this time, I had a family to care for. Some of the crew had families in a few ports to care for. We couldn’t go over long without getting paid. I ain’t proud of it, but my crew, my responsibility.”
“Are you saying?” I couldn’t finish the question.
“I’m saying that if a wreck was hard to come by, well, maybe we made a few appear.”
“What about the men on the other ships?”
“Not my crew, not my problem. A few joined up though.”
“You’re talking about piracy,” I said.
“I’m talking about no such thing. Piracy is a concept based on the laws of men. My crew, my ship, we obeyed the laws of the sea. If we respected her, we could count on her to keep us safe. At least, that’s what I thought.” The old man fell silent and finished his drink. For the first time he looked away from me. He shook his mug in the air and a waitress brought him another.
“Did guilt make you leave the sea?” I asked.
He laughed a humorless laugh and shook his head.
“Never was no guilt. I guess, I been telling this story the long way round. Just understand this. I knew the sea, she knew me. There weren’t a beast in it that caused me fear because my love would never let them harm me. Like all tempestuous lovers though, you’d be foolish to think you’re the only one.”
“Someone attacked you?”
He shook his head and took a long drink.
“There are some things under the sea not meant to be seen by man. Spend enough time on her and she’ll show you her dark side.”
He nodded, took another drink, and lit another smoke. From his story and the stories my father told me, I thought the old captain couldn’t be much over fifty. Looking at his face now, seeing the slight shake in his hands as he smoked, he could have been in his eighties.
Silence surrounded us as he drank and smoked. I tried to think of some question or comment, something to break the silence. I excused myself to use the restroom and considered leaving. My heart was gripped by a dread I couldn’t explain, but I had to hear the rest of his story.
Half expecting him to be gone I was surprised to see him sitting with a glass of brown liquid in front of him. His hands were steadier. I sat down and smiled at him. He grunted in reply.
“You know why your father wanted you to see me?”
“I think he wanted you to give me advice.”
“Bullshit. He wants me to stop you.”
“Old Sam knows what I seen, he seen it to, my whole crew did.”
“Only the two of us left now. I told you, they all answer the call.”
“Sir, I don’t understand,” I confessed.
“Course you don’t, you ain’t heard no call yet. You will.” He drained the glass in front of him.
“Why would you stop me?”
“Ten years since I last went to sea. Ten years away from your true love is a long time, boy. I got one voyage left in me, it’s coming soon. I hear the call and it must be answered.” The old man wasn’t looking at me. I’m not sure he knew I was still there. “Things under the sea that ought not be seen by man.” He sighed.
“So you said.” His eyes pierced me as I spoke.
“I’ve not spoken of this to a living soul. I figure old Sam thinks you wouldn’t believe him if he told you. Well, I’ll tell you, you believe it or not. If you do then you’ll listen to me and keep your feet on land.”
“Tell me what?”
“We were in port in England for a few weeks tracking down leads on a sunken merchantman around Jamaica. We left port with clear skies and a fair wind. Figured it would be a good trip and was certain we knew where to look for our prize.
“Three days out and we were hit by a storm. Rain coming down in buckets, wind howling so loud you couldn’t hear anything more than the cannon fire of thunder. The kind of storm that would’ve torn older ships to splinters. Was then I knew my old love was mighty pissed at us for something. Felt like we fought that damn storm for eternity. Wasn’t much more than a day though.
“Got lucky and didn’t lose but two crewmen and all the damage was fixable. We got to work fixing the ship and back on our way to Jamaica. Luck wasn’t with us for long.
“Day after the storm ended another ship was spotted on the horizon, we started heading for it, hoping for help with repairs, but never seemed to get any closer. Spent half a day chasing and signaling this ship, then it was gone. We were off course, night was falling, our damaged engines stopped working and there was no wind. She was mad alright.
“Spent that night fixing the engines best we could. When the sun rose, we were greeted by the sight of a perfectly still sea. Like a sheet of glass it was. Imagine it, middle of the Atlantic and not a damn thing was moving. No wind, no waves, felt as though time just stopped around us. Even now, it makes the hairs on my neck stand.
“Soon as the engines were fixed, I gave the order to make for the nearest port with all the speed we could muster. The ship vibrated when the engines started, the sea remained glass, and we failed to move.
“Now, I’m familiar with the doldrums. If we relied only on wind that may have put me at ease, but our continued lack of movement set me on edge. Many of the crew commented that it weren’t natural. Privately, I agreed. I sent our best diver into the sea to inspect the propellers. The moment he hit the water I knew I should have brought him up.” He paused and stared at his hands.
“Why?” I prodded in a whisper.
“The sea remained still. No ripples from him in the water. Damn fool I am, I left him down. He went under; never came up. Only the sea knows for sure what happened to him, I have a guess.” He stood and walked to the bar. For the first time I was able to see a pronounced limp when he walked. He returned carrying two more drinks and set one in front of me.
“A shark?” I asked when he sat down.
“Would that it were so, boy. I cut the engines and told the crew to arm themselves. They were a good crew, followed my orders with nary a question. The rest of that day passed quietly. If any good could be seen it was the sunset, a beautiful explosion of reds, oranges, and purple above and reflected in the still sea below us.
“Now, any captain can tell you the importance of maintaining routine and discipline in stressful situations. That’s what I did. Let me tell you, boy, I was so stressed you couldn’t have shoved a greased pin up my ass with a twenty pound sledge.
“Midnight found me retired to my quarters. That’s where I was when the ship started to moan and creak. A low vibration shook through the ship. I charged out onto the deck in time to see the first crewman yanked overboard. In the moonlight, I couldn’t see what grabbed him. I’ll never forget the sounds of his screams or how they cut off with no splash.
“Three more were killed before I ever saw our assailant. It was difficult to see, a shadow in shadows. Orange eyes flashed here and there around the deck. If it were a man, it would have stood at least ten feet high. It were no man though. I fired a pistol at the eyes and they vanished. Then the stars went out. It was around us, it was on deck with us, maybe it had already eaten us and we were in it. I can’t say.
“We were fighting shadows and losing badly. The ship was being tossed like we were in a hurricane. I was flung into the air and came crashing onto the deck. The last I remember is the screams around me fading into the distance.”
“What was it?” I asked gripping the arms of my chair.
“I can’t say with certainty. I woke up on a lifeboat with your father and seven others. We floated for about a week before washing up on an island. I won’t bore you with details of how we lived. Just know that, as Captain, I filled my duty – my leg was the first sacrificed so we could live.
“After our rescue, we all vowed never to sail again. Old Sam and I are the only ones that have kept that vow.
“As for what attacked us? I tried to research it after. All I found were crazed tales of a sunken city in the general area we were in. Some years later, I saw a picture of what I seen that night. The large body, tentacle face, glowing eyes, like a squid with arms and legs. The picture labeled the creature but I couldn’t read it, couldn’t have pronounced it either.” He stopped and took a drink with trembling hands.
“What happened to the others?” I asked.
“Sometimes, she calls you like a mother. Sometimes, like a lover. Sometimes, like a hungry god wanting his leftovers. It don’t matter how she calls, them she calls always answer.”
~ The End ~