17 Mar On the Shores of Despair
“On the Shores of Despair”Written by Hank Belbin Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 56 minutes
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way.
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies—
— Virgil, 70-19 BC
Never did I feel more cast down this dark period of my life.
Why did I come whaling but for my own destruction?
I think my damnation is fixed now —
— Captain Clothier Pierce, “Minnesota” logbook, 1868
CHAPTER I — “Mors Tua, Vita Mea”
I am sitting on a rock alone. I am the last survivor. Everyone else is dead. Slow-moving waves of emerald and turquoise swirl in the lidless black sky above me. I am sitting here, looking up at that haunting green luminescence; the place from which we all must’ve surely descended from—The Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights. I’d like to believe that’s true. The building blocks of the cosmos, yet strangely spiritual, and easily able to make man dream that there is something ‘watching’ above us all. Its presence somehow familiar in the desolate hollows of our reality. It appears to me now as like the drawing of curtains to reveal the beyond-world of everlasting emptiness. Will it ever forgive us for what we have done here?
I am on an island somewhere in the Barents Sea. I will never leave its rugged shores. I know am destined to die here alone, at the edge of the world. All around me is lurid decaying wilderness. Nothing but snow, fog, and rocks. This grim reminder of our own fragile mortality. The eternal darkness of the afterlife is all that awaits me now. I can see it. Headlong into Hell and I am soon to join the others.
How did I get here? Why did I come here? The worst part of my damnation is I do not have an answer for those questions. All I know is I came here on the SS Glenmore; a whaling ship sailing out of Scotland. Our damned voyage sailed from Aberdeen port with a crew of thirty on November 11th in the year 1869. What came after was our own perdition.
It was a Friday we set sail. We were heading north to the Norwegian sea, on a skirmish to hunt northerly whales for their oils, whose applications many have said propelled our evolution into this industrial age. I guess I felt different about it all.
I remember seeing the ship for the first time harboured in Aberdeen port on that fateful morning in November long ago. The moment I saw it there, set against the backdrop of the milky morning mist, I felt my stomach involuntarily contract. I should have turned around that instant and left for Boston. But I didn’t.
The SS Glenmore was one of those sickly old harpooner whaling ships that somehow appeared to be nowhere near the sunset of its vicious life. It instead took on an air of immortality about it. A lean and hungry vessel with an insatiable desire to fill its holds with bloodied whale meat. It had been used almost constantly since its construction in the year 1828. It was a long and narrow sail ship, like a shark, with a total length of 34 metres. The traditional sail plan of barque gave it extra speed. The ship was conceived in Green, Wigram’s and Green, at Blackwell Yard in London. A place that seems like worlds away now as I write this.
The creaking keel was painted with a loathsome dark green, the hull covered in thick black tar-like paint. As I’d approached the ship, I could smell this stench that seemed to constantly radiate from its rank underside. It smelt like… death. The gangways were all laden with crude meat hooks and dulled harpoons that hung from the ropes like dried-out corpses.
I reluctantly stepped onto the deck with a shudder and was greeted by a series of grunts and smirks from the crew. The blur of their greyed jackets, dirtied flat caps, and matted beards swam by me as I moved down the length of the ship towards the Captain’s deck.
Being the only American aboard, I immediately felt uncomfortable and out of place as I clutched my luggage and shuffled through them all bearing down on me. As I moved down the deck, merely to avoid making eye contact with any of them, something else caught my eye. I had peered overboard and saw a small old lady looking up at me from the edge of the docks. She was wearing a black dress and a frilled bonnet. She glared at me, shook her head, and gestured the cross of Christ over her body. It was hard to tell exactly, but I thought I saw her whisper something as she did.
“Forgive us for our sins,” I mouthed back to her, but she did not retort. Instead, she just stared up at me with a blistering hatred. I looked away. For some reason, the gesture really bothered me. It seemed she knew something about the voyage that I did not. She gripped that cross tight against her chest like it was a shield against us all. I looked away from here and tried to put it all out of my mind.
I was commissioned on the ship as its doctor and surgeon. I had performed this duty several times before, but usually on cruise liners and much more glamorous steamboats. It was my duty to be in charge of the medicine cabinet and to do that, I needed to get situated.
“Captain McPhail? I believe he is to show me to my quarters?” I asked one of the gnarled foremasthands. He said no words and instead pointed up the length of the deck. I followed his finger with my gaze and then saw the captain. He was standing at the wheel puffing on his pipe.
Captain McPhail looked down and acknowledged me with a big menacing grin. He then came down from the quarter deck to welcome me. I did not feel welcome, however. He was a weathered old Scottish seafarer with a shock of white hair and a thick heavy moustache. He must have been about fifty. A great stocky man with thick legs and a wide chin. Tough bastard.
“Welcome doctor,” he said with a big grin as he patted hard me on the shoulder. The impact shook my ribcage. “We’re ten minutes to cast off! Let’s get ye settled.”
He took hold of me and practically dragged me down to my quarters.
I had never set eyes on a whaling vessel before, let alone stepped upon one. But since touching the wooden handrails of the thing, I knew I hated the ship. It seemed evil; like it was some kind of vampiric entity. Something about the old women in black really made my skin quiver also. Unfortunately, I was desperate for money. My addictions had spiralled out of my grasp and had lost my favour with many reputable employers in London and Boston. This disgusting floating hulk was my last chance at a surgeon’s wage. I almost had to close my eyes as I was led down into the bowls of the beast. It smelt like old bilge water and blood down there. Salt and mould. Flesh and death. The smell turned my stomach. Rats scurried around in the guttering and the decks were all black and slippery.
After I was shown my quarters—a meagre little room with only a slatted wooden door for privacy—I sat down alone on the edge of the bed and dripped a few drops of raw laudanum onto my tongue to ease my anxiety All I could think was, What in God’s name am I doing here?
Soon after, up on deck, the mooring ropes were loosened and we drifted away from the port and into a dense enveloping cloud of fog. I looked out of my lonely little porthole and watched the last of those civilized lands disappearing behind me and into grey. A young lad of about fifteen came up and knocked and asked if I required anything. Simmonds was his name, and he was the cabin boy. I told him I had everything I needed, even though that was a lie.
The expedition was scheduled for two months, and that fact made my heart sink low into my stomach. I sighed and mixed one more dose of the devil laudanum to quell my shaking hands. The ship strode on through the perpetual waves, and, peering out of the porthole, I suddenly felt vaguely scared at the hegemony of it all. Out there, the sea seemed to stretch off endlessly in every direction. Boundless bare dark waves.
The days had drifted by listlessly. I sought to keep myself occupied aboard the floating husk any way I could. I’d installed myself in my books at every opportunity, studying Latin and reading about Roman philosophers. After taking a brief inventory of my supplies, I calculated that with strict but tactical rationing, I could induce a semi-conscious state for over two months by using the laudanum; effectively rendering me functional but absent of mind. This could offer me at least some sort of reprieve until we docked in civilised lands once more.
I had only learned a few names since being aboard. They were those who bothered to speak to me. There was Harper, the idler, or cook. Cartwright, who was one of the harpooners. Edwards, the first-mate. Simmonds, the sheepish cabin boy. And Chamberlain, who was the other primary harpooner. The rest of the foremastmen and crew did not speak to me.
So, I kept myself to myself and moved away from their presence wherever I could. On a small ship, however, it was proving difficult. Whenever the men were in the forecastle eating their dinner, I would stay up on deck alone, and vis versa. I had never felt so alone before. I hated the ship. I hated the men too. They were savage and selfish men. I could see it in their eyes. Driven only by pure greed, they did not care for each other, nor the world, not even themselves. I felt like a lone cat amongst a pack of rabid dogs.
I remained up on deck by myself one night, having offered to take the last watch after the sails were furled and heaved to overnight. Up on the bow, I watched the dying sun fall below the rim of the world. It was a dark night. The stars above struggled to twinkle against the brooding blackness. Choppy waters lapped against the bilge and the ship squirmed. Everything was quiet and repeating. And I stood there thinking about all the places I could’ve been rather than aboard this dreaded ship. Why did I come here? I believe my damnation is set.
We were eight days into our voyage when I first felt the darkness. Since boarding, I had this ill, twisted feeling in my stomach that something terrible was going to happen, yet I couldn’t say what exactly. There was just something different in the air, something since seeing that old lady at the docks. Perhaps I was imagining it but everything felt unusual. I could not shake this feeling that clung to me like cold mud. There was… a presence. A darkness that seemed to be following the ship. Now and then, I’d turn over my shoulder to try and spy it out there on the waters, but there was nothing behind us; there was nothing there. For some reason, I imagined a great ancient squid-like entity swimming just off the rudder, pursuing us. Yet, there was nothing there; nothing but that unmistakable feeling… of darkness.
I shook my head. Perhaps the laudanum was having more of an effect on me than I’d first thought. Each day, I’d taken more and more of the drug to cinder the anxiety overtaking me.
The weather through the days was interminably grey and bleak. The nights were long and inky thick. As the nervousness in my stomach matured, I soon began to wonder if the seas and the winds were somehow working in unison against us? There was just something rotten with the whole voyage.
It was the thirteenth day at sea. All was quiet. There appeared to be a storm brewing off on the horizon, but it was a long north way from the ship. We had not seen a whale yet and the crew were getting bored and anxious. The foremasthands were swabbing the deck and the idlers were preparing the dinner out of hard tac and salted pork. I had been reading for most of the morning and the commotion of the crew about me barely entered my peripheries. All of it vague echoes on the ambience of the waves. Then, I heard something that brought me back to my reality.
“Whale, captain!” Chamberlian, the harpooner, had shouted, breaking the tranquillity. With the call, the men cheered.
Edwards, the first-mate bellowed, “All hands! All hands on deck!”
Everyone sprung into motion and prepared their tools. I had never seen a whale before and knew I had to do so. More curious than anything, I put my book down and headed to the front of the boat. The busying crew all shuffled around me as I glided to a better vantage point.
And there I saw it—A whale. She was more beautiful than I could’ve ever imagined. She was magnificent. A great grey thing with mottled specs of white algae all over it. From the bow of the ship, I watched the fifteen-metre-long sperm whale swim through the pallid blue thralls. It moved through the waves effortlessly, fantastically, as if it were indeed a part of the waves, or resting upon them. Its giant tail-fin rising out of the swells and splashing the salty sea spray up to my face. I laughed gleefully. “She’s beautiful!” I screamed but heard no response.
Then, filtering through the sound of the rushing waves, and the roar of the sails, I heard the feral bays and cheers of the crew behind me. One of the foremasthands swung from the sail ropes like some deranged gibbon at the sight of the whale. The crew all prepared their harpoons and cheered and banged the sides of the boat at the thrill of the pursuit. I suddenly felt a thick heavy stone turn over in my stomach. How could I have been so stupid?
As Captain McPhail commanded the wheel, he looked down to me hanging from the railings, studying me as I sighed with grief. He knew I did not condone this.
“We’ve got her now, Doctor!” he snarled to me excitedly. But I could do no such thing. Naive awe was soon replaced with crushing guilt. The chase was on. All I could do was look on helplessly as the SS Glenmore closed the gap and came alongside the whale. We chased her for at least an hour. No, we don’t have to do this. We should let it go, I thought over and over.
Then the rowboats went out full of the harpooning teams from the ship. I watched the whole thing from the spyglass, hoping that something would go wrong and the whale would escape. They prepared the ropes and negotiated the slack before positioning the harpoons. The boats surrounded her. She had nowhere to go. I was soon locked into a kind of dull paralysis as I silently pleaded to something, anything, for the whale to dive down, far down, away from the range of their harpoons. But it didn’t. It was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.
“Dive, you fool!” I shouted at the beast. “Swim down! Please! Dive! Dive!
It was too late for the whale. The harpoon let loose from Cartwright’s grip and screeched banshee-like in the mist. The razor-tip plunged into the whale just behind its right flipper and it screamed. It rolled over.
“No!” I bellowed.
I didn’t know whales could scream. The noise sounded like a trumpeting groaning elephant. My skin went cold and I shuddered at hearing it.
Another harpoon found its way to the whale’s stomach. It howled and rolled onto its side further in the waves. The waters ran red. Pools of crimson swirled around its lacerated body, the pouring torment merging in with the frothy blackness of the Norwegian sea. The crew shouted and swore gleefully at each other as it did. The whale tried to swim away, but it couldn’t. They had her bound. I sunk to my knees, clinging to the rail, unable to look on anymore.
With the harpoons, they were able to snare and reel her in. Now, it was a matter of attrition. The whale would run out of oxygen and have no choice but to surface again. After another half hour battle, it did.
The captain looked down at me and bellowed joyfully, “The Ol girl’s got fight in her yet!”
I didn’t respond. I could not bear to look upon any of it. If I was not so weak and passive, I would have liked to have stabbed Captain McPhail to death at that moment, right in his fucking eyeball with a rusty blade. The hate swelled up in me like a stomach full of burning coals. I would have liked to have killed them all— the rabid dogs that were the crew’s ranks.
From over my shoulder, I could hear that animal cry and beg in agony. It was a kind of sobbing yelp that carried across the waters. It turned my heart heavy and I could bear it no longer. The men’s eyes glowed unnaturally with bloodlust all around me. There were demons aboard. What we were doing out there made me disgusted to call myself human. Something welled up unannounced inside of me: a fit of searing anger. I could not stop the words coming out. Flashes of the old lady at the docks ran through my mind. Forgive us for what we have done here.
“Oh, God! Curse you! Curse all of us!” I bellowed. “Why are we doing this? This is not right! Death to all of us! May we be lost to the seas, to the earth, to time itself! May no one ever speak our names again for what we have done here! Curse us all! Curse us all to Hell forever!”
The men simply laughed and chided at me as they continued with their work. But Captain McPhail only watched on curiously at my tirade. I threw the spyglass to the deck in outrage. “Death to us all!” I bellowed.
They all laughed. I ran off and went down and sulked in a decrepit little corner of the horrible ship.
By this point, the storm that we saw earlier in the morning had started to come in hard and heavy. We had sailed right into it as we hunted the whale, and no one had noticed. The downpour was tremendous.
The savage crew set to work on reeling the giant in and had no choice but to continue working in the gales and the rains. As they tugged the whale’s corpse closer, I looked down over the side at its lacerated body there in the reddened water. It was still alive. I could see it in the beast’s eyes. I could only hope that by this point that the animal was so shocked that it could not feel anything anymore.
Cartwright and the rest of the crew eventually heaved the whale up to the railings and held her in place with giant rusted black meat hooks. It was barbaric. Then they began slicing and cutting and hacking their way through the whale’s blubber, making a mockery of her body. The crew butchered the whale bit by bit in the unrelenting rain like demons feasting in the deepest pits of Hell. They drew slabs of blubber off its back and laid them on the deck. That was all they wanted.
Plums of sickly black smoke drifted up from the forecastle and into the rain as the idlers prepared to try the whale. They had started the furnace to boil the blubber down into the oil. Oil lamps flickered in the gloom. The crew’s faces glowed against the dull flames. I stood there among them and felt truly miserable. I had the overwhelming urge to cast myself overboard for my sins.
But something else began to happen. A strong gust of wind came in from the north. The worst one yet. It suddenly rocked and sent the ship spinning around uncontrollably. Then another gail. Then another. The storm had swelled into something monstrous all around us. Slowly, the winds battered the ship. This went on for at least another hour.
I got up from my corner and swaying from side to side, attempted to come up to the middle of the boat.
Once there, I was greeted by a wall of freezing rain from the starboard side, icy and impenetrable like death itself. Something was very wrong now. The skies were darker than ever. The churning black clouds above blotted out what little sun there was. I shielded my eyes with my hand outstretched and tried to grab onto something.
The SS Glenmore then began swirling around slowly as if it were stuck in a whirlpool. The men appeared panicked and I could see why. The ship’s gantry squirmed as it took the full brunt of the whale’s weight in the gales. Ragged ropes were pulled taut and everything aboard the ship was tense and coiled. Everyone was shouting and screaming around me. Their noise was a blur in the howling winds.
I saw that two of the foremastmen were both hanging by one arm each from the forepeak and trying to signal up to Captain McPhail. They were waving and gesturing to the whale’s lifeless bloodied husk. At first, I was unable to see what the problem was. I looked up to Captain McPhail to gauge some sort of understanding of the situation. But then, the ship suddenly groaned against the storm and it felt like the wood of the masts were bowing. I instinctively clasped hold of the nearest rail available. The fierce wind combined with the off-balanced bulk of the sperm whale was straining the vessel’s struts to its limits. Rain splashed into my face as I tried to look up. At this point, I thought I heard someone say, “She’s an anchor, she’s dragging us down!”
Then, abruptly, the lines from the gantry all snapped and the sperm whale began to fall away from the side of the vessel. The crew squawked and barked as they each tried to take hold of the frayed ropes to stop their prize from falling away from them. But it was too late. The animal weighed too much to be held.
“Down!” Someone then screamed from behind me. So I jumped to the floor instinctively. All the crew also hit the deck with the command, save for one.
There was this thunderous clap of ripping rope and snapping wood; something breaking and giving way. One of the meat hooks of the broken gantry had broken off. As all of us laid there on the deck, it cut down the flanks like a guillotine. The hook then swang around right into one of the men, the one who’d failed to hit the deck. It took him in the forehead with a vicious crunch, snagging him under, and everything about the haul was yanked down into deep inky waves teeming with white foam. The whale’s carcass sunk to the depths of the tempest along with the seaman, both swallowed up by infinite waters.
The crew all peered over the side and stared down into the brooding sea in horror, back down into the black gulfs where their crewmate and the whale once were. Aligning with the deaths, the storm roared above. That was when I knew we were a cursed expedition. That was when I knew the old lady was right.
After the funeral at sea, the men retreated down into the bowels of the ship to drink and forget about the day’s hardships. The dead seaman’s name was never mentioned again. The storm had gotten worse. It grew monstrously since the accident and the whole ship heaved itself reluctantly through dark veined waves and beating rains. Almost fifty nautical miles away from where the seaman died, it was clear that the weather seemed to be following us now.
Down in the orlops, as I navigated the dim swaying hallways alone, I could hear the low feeble sea shanties coming from them all. They laid in their hammocks and drank and sang like a pack of yapping dogs.
Captain McPhail had invited me to his cabin that night, presumably so I could explain my actions earlier in the day. It was bad luck to curse a voyage. All I could think of was perhaps they were right.
The men hated me now. They blamed me for it all. I could see it in the twinkle of their eyes. I had wanted to avoid them wherever possible, so his invitation was begrudgingly welcomed. I came to his door and he’d let me in without so much as a word.
A couple hours of drinking had passed. Edwards had left us. It was just me and Captain McPhail. His cabin was dark and cold, despite the wood burner roaring away. The wood-cladding walls held various oil paintings of seafarers and mythical monsters of the deep. Leviathan, Kracken, squids of the twilight, sharks of extreme lengths. On his desk was a collection of dusty old tomes that had clearly never been read.
Captain McPhail had installed himself in front of his fire, shrouded in gloom, and done his best to appear glum for the majority of the night. But I could tell he didn’t care for the dead man. He only cared for the payments he had lost. I merely assumed it was, in front of me, an attempt to show appropriate sorrow and humility at the death of a seaman.
“He was a popular lad. The men will take it hard,” he said to me without looking at me. “It should have ne’er happened. Someone failed to strap something down correctly!”
“I think it was the storm,” I replied after a long silence.
He cocked his head and looked at me. “This is no storm, doctor,” he snapped. “I’ve sailed and slept through much worse. Force-seven at most. I know these seas.”
“For now, it is, but it’s getting worse. You have to admit that?”
“You a meteorologist as well as a surgeon?” he stood up from his chair and headed over to the bar. “Come, have another drink with me,” he pushed.
He was trying to loosen my lips, that much was clear. But he also needed no excuse to drink. Captain McPhail had the same aliment as me. The only difference was his addiction of choice was alcohol. Nothing put a smile on his face like half a bottle of whiskey. Without it, he was prone to bouts of melancholia. As the day went on and his hangover faded, it was always slowly replaced by those unmistakable glazed-over eyes of defeat. Only retreating to his cabin at night and drinking until he forgot everything ever brought about a sense of joy to him.
“No, thank you. I must get some sleep,” I said, desperate to leave.
“Scotch, wasn’t it?” he asked brazenly as he poured me a tumbler full of it. “Or perhaps you would prefer it mixed with laudanum? That will help ye escape, won’t it?” He chuckled.
He then sauntered over to me with an air of shrewd wisdom and placed the glass in my hands. I glumly looked down at the brown liquid whirling round in the cold tumbler. The ship was swaying and groaning against the threnody of steep and squalling waves now, banking from port to starboard. Bitter gales rumbled and rain hammered against the windows, harder than ever before. The room was near-quiet however, save for the odd cracking of firewood.
“It’s The Macallan 1840, doctor. It’ll be a crime to waste it,” McPhail said after a very long silence, watching me grimace at the tumbler.
I shook my head, unable to look at anything but the whiskey responding to the waves outside, thinking about what could be swimming down there, following the ship. Some obscene entity not yet known to the modern world. It had answered my curse, that much was clear. At some point, its slippery black tentacles would settle over the bow of the ship and drag us all down into the depths to join the dead whale. All I could think about was getting back home.
“I think we should turn around and head back to Aberdeen, Captain McPhail.”
“You would like that, wouldn’t ye?” he scoffed.
It was tradition for the captain and the higher-ranking members of the ship to exchange war stories and laugh in front of the fire after a hard day’s work, but not tonight. Tonight, he had wanted to interrogate me and decide what to do with me from there. A lot of accidents can happen aboard these voyages. Some were more explainable than others. People go missing on these trips all the time.
“… The storm is only going to get worse. This is wrong. I can feel it,” I said.
His eyes scanned me mercilessly. He was searching, excavating, for a reason to kill me. “We’ve only acquired a quarter of a whale after today’s events. That barely covers the cost of the voyage, let alone the men’s wages. If we were to turn back now, we would stand to lose everything. The men would find another vessel the second we’re back at port. The ship would ne’er sail again! Unacceptable. We must keep going until that hold is full of blubber. Now have a drink.”
I could do no such thing, however. I simply shook my head again.
“I’m beginning to think this voyage is cursed,” I muttered, almost embarrassed at how it sounded coming out. Yet I could not stop thinking about that presence.
“There’s something wrong here. I don’t want to disrupt your skirmish, but, there’s something… following the ship. There’s a darkness here. You must acknowledge it. We should cut our losses and sail back now. Because this is not right.”
He leant forward and scowled at me. “What are you even doing on this ship? You have no business being here.”
“… I’ve been asking myself that a lot these past few days. We should not be here,” I said, holding my cross in my hand.
“Captain McPhail noticed. “You think that cross will save you? A flimsy bit of metal?” He chided. “Suppose you’d be off to some theatre show, sipping wine with other members of high society?” He scoffed. “The perfume on your favourite woman’s neck, the candles in your smoking rooms, the buttons on her fancy corset all come from the whale. It’s time you realised how essential this trade is, doctor,” the Captain then stated whilst using his glass to demonstrate his point.
“I’m not here to debate ethics with you. A corset is not essential to our survival.”
He turned and looked at me and smiled wryly. “You don’t agree with what we do, do ye?” His teeth were sharp and white. They made me grimace.
“That’s putting it mildly…”
“Ha! Well, like it or not, you’re here, and you chose to be here. Only about 300 miles of raw open ocean stop ye from being home now. But don’t let that bother you! Things will be better tomorrow, you’ll see. Storms always pass…” he said and smiled at me again with a veneer of malice.
From that moment, I knew my time aboard the ship was borrowed. Someone intended to kill me. It was signed and affirmed. I didn’t say anything else. Silence fell over the cabin like a suffocating cloud. Captain McPhail turned away. His face hardened and he appeared to be grimacing at what I had said now. He then resigned himself to staring vacantly into the rolling flames.
“The things I’ve seen and done out here… God, the things I’ve done… I’ve jousted with mighty Poseidon himself. And I’d do it all again…”
He then looked up at me. His eyes were hollow and dark. Like two black glistening orbs of granite on an endless beach.
“The seas are cruel foes,” he said. “You’re right, doctor. There is something following this ship—Evil. I’ve felt it my entire life. This… darkness, it’s below. It’s like we’ve sailed off into something else. It must be contended with, not surrendered to. There are black waters out there, and something is down there in it. Pure evil swimming around in its depths. And you brought it upon us with your curses today. Bad luck to curse a voyage, boy… What will ye do then?”
I didn’t reply. Instead, the storm outside seemed to answer for me.
The SS Glenmore lurched and staggered through the troughs and crests of the steep waves. Every bank, every heave, every raindrop only served to remind me that I could have been anywhere, but instead, I was there, on a floating coffin in the middle of the ocean.
As I stood there looking at him, a roaring jolt of lightning illuminated the cabin for a split second. And, there, in that space within the flash, I believed I saw Captain McPhail headless and dead sitting there in that chair before me; his posture somehow staring back at me.
I yelped in shock. The tumbler fell from my suddenly weakened grip and shattered on the floor. My face went flushed and I felt incredibly dizzy and sick. When the vision did pass, all I saw was Captain McPhail staring at me with a curious hatred. “You’re not right, boy,” he snarled whilst frowning.
So I saw it as my cue to leave. I went back to my own damp little corner of the cursed ship to wade out the vengeful storm. But, as I shuffled through the orlops, I felt it again—that presence. A howling groan that felt like a whisper on the back of my neck. I turned and cast my gaze back down the dim hallway, and saw there was nothing there. But, I knew there was. There was something old and malevolent in those seas. Whatever evil it was, I knew we were about to face it.
I do not remember going to bed that night, only that I’d taken too much laudanum. My drug-induced sleep was rife with nightmares and terrors, yet deep and steady. I could not escape it. I only remember this vague feeling of inescapable blackness heavy against my breathing. Like I was suffocating. Something about bloodied meat also.
When I finally woke up, I was shocked to learn I had been unresponsive for most of the morning. I only arose from my slumber after Mr. Cartwright had shaken me awake. The storm had worsened whilst I was out and I blearily rose to my feet to find the decks in utter pandemonium. Men about me were pumping the dirty water out of the crevasses of the ship. Others were heaving past me holding ropes and tools. Before I could even comprehend where I was, I was immediately shunted back into the cot by the violent thrashings of the storm. Rainwater spewed down from holes in the ceiling and onto my head. Laying backwards and looking through the portholes, I viewed upsidedown the nauseating flashing of lightning out there and understood instantly what was happening.
“You best brace yourself, doctor!” Mr. Cartwright shouted down to me as he held me firmly with both arms, lifting me back to my feet. “It’s only going to get worse!”
His face was pale and washed out. He looked genuinely scared.
“Where’s Captain McPhail?” I asked, coughing out wads of old spit and phlegm onto the floor.
“At the wheel. We need to steer out of this storm!”
I eventually mustered enough strength to lunge up to the decks and meet the captain. He was frantic and terrified also. He was up there, wrestling the wheel away from the waves. He fought against the rain and gnawing winds lashing at his face. I staggered over to him, slamming into ropes and railings as I did. Glancing off the port side, I saw the waves roar immensely into sickening peaks of grey and white and the thrashing of thick rain hammering down all around. Everything was blurring into an inconceivable fathomless smudge of grey, completely indistinguishable from each other. It made my head swim.
“Captain!” I shouted.
“Leave me! We need to get out of this storm!” Captain McPhail screamed at me as I accosted him. “We’re in a whirlpool! We can’t let loose! Every time I turn aft, the tides turn against me! We’re stuck!”
“Can we not anchor and wade it out?” I asked.
“The anchor will ripe the bow off the front of the ship! I can’t see anything. The compass has ceased to work.”
“What?” I barked back, unsure whether I heard him clearly against the lament of the cyclone.
“The compass does not work! It pointed in this direction and now we’re lost! It just spins around and around now,” he screamed while pointing at it.
When I heard those words coupled with the interminable storm, I felt something thick and squelching drop in my chest. We were deep in the maelstrom of a horrible churning mass of water, lightning, and wind. The ship banked sharply from port to starboard and I had the sensation of being pulled down a swirling plughole.
The shouting all around was disorientating me and soon my vision blurred. I remember heaving up a great mass of vomit onto the deck. I felt so weak that I could scarcely fight against the expansive pounding seas. I soon resigned myself to huddling into a cubbyhole underneath the mid-deck. I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them to keep the warmth in my body. Then I buried my head into my jerkin in an effort to create a semi-waterproof shell against the torrents. It did not work. Icy water seeped in everywhere and soon my whole body fell damp, shivering, and tingly. I was so disoriented and tired that all I could do was sit there in the downpour and feel sorry for myself, mumbling various prayers ad nauseam. At some point, the ship banked sharply and I slammed my head against the wall of the stairwell. It stunned me completely and I couldn’t focus on much else.
The ordeal went on. The tempest, relentless. We could not fathom night from day in the purest of darkness. I could not say for certain how long the storm raged. I only knew that the ship would not survive much longer against the arcs of nature.
But the night did mercifully fall at some point, and with it, the storm fell too. It retreated silently up into the suddenly vacuous dark sky without announcement. Not that we acknowledged that. Most of the battle-exhausted men simply slept where they fell. The ship fell silent too. And the wreck of the SS Glenmore drifted on listlessly through unknown fogs and flat waveless seas, its masts downed like fallen pine trees across the decks. I lay still under the stairs. Nothing about me moved. Everything was just… silent.
With the silence, I suffered my second nightmare-filled sleep aboard the ship. I had dreams of blinding white light and it did not stop for a very long time.
The switch happened as we slept. No one heard it, no one remembered it. None of them saw a thing. We all woke up slowly, either the next morning or the morning after that. I am not sure which. All of us were unsure where we were. Dates and times were lost. Everyone about the decks was groggy and sombre. One by one they rose to their feet in the endless fog. Some wandered around the mid-deck without guidance, as if they had forgotten who they were. I woke up shivering in a puddle of my own vomit. Wearily, I leaned against the balustrade of the stairs and checked myself. I had a large cut across my forehead that required stitching at some point, but at this moment it had ceased bleeding, so I left it and stood up to find the captain, heading past all the tattered men as I did.
“Anyone have dreams of flashing white lights?” Harper furtively asked the crew around him. I bowed my head as I moved past him, pretending I didn’t hear the question that made my head fill with terror.
“… Yeah,” someone said, nodding slowly.
“Me too,” Chamberlain retorted solemnly also.
“What is this? All this fog?” Harper then asked while looking around vacantly.
On the bridge, Captain McPhail had draped his fatigued body over the wheel. He had threaded his arms through it and clasped his hands together, hugging the ship desperately, as if saying his final goodbyes to a dying and loyal pet. He looked like a man who had truly been defeated.
I made a half-hearted attempt of appearing upbeat and then cautiously approached him. He did not respond as I came up onto the bridge next to him. Instead, he resigned himself to staring vacantly down the length of the ship at all his rugged and bloodied men. Some were still picking themselves up out of the puddles they had passed out in. The ship seemed not to be rocking on the waves anymore and I didn’t know why.
“Hell of a storm, captain,” I said. There was no reply from him. “What shall we do?” I then asked hesitantly.
“Nothing,” he replied after a short pause. I did not understand initially. The haunting winds drifted quietly around the dead ship as if like a ghostly spectre filtering through a forgotten wreckage. We were surrounded by this white enveloping fog, unlike any I had seen before.
“Nothing? I don’t understand,” I said.
“We can’t do nothing now. To the salty depths with us all, right doctor?” he chided.
“What do you mean?”
“The rudder’s broken,” he responded in a flat hoarse tone. “The engine is flooded. The masts are destroyed. We’re a wreck…”
I breathed out heavily and observed the damage on the ship. “Is there no way to repair it?”
He simply shook his head and buried it deeper into his arms. “No…”
I sighed heavily at the news and could do nothing else but stand there looking at my feet.
Captain McPhail rubbed his furrowed brow and spat out a wad of tobacco. “Why does it even fuckin’ matter anyway?” He growled. “We’ve done nothing wrong, but still, this happens. You stick your head out of the gutter for one lousy moment and fate shovels shit right into your mouth. Fuck it all…”
I bowed my head apologetically and moved away from him. I went and sat near the mizzenmast and could only look at the floor, feeling utterly distraught. Everyone else aboard was the same. They all sat and bowed their furrowed brows.
After some time, the fog began to clear and I heard someone exclaim, “My God, what is that?”
It was Simmonds, the cabin boy. He was pointing upwards at the mist behind Captain McPhail. We all turned to face what the lad was pointing at. Then, one by one, we saw it.
Looming up out of the clearing fog was a stark and jagged cliff face that seemed to have risen up impossibly out of the sea; as if the ocean floor itself had been jutted up in a primal volcanic blast. When my gaze fell upon the dizzying wall of stone, my blood ran cold and I reeled back, feeling as if I were about to pass out. I saw land for the first time in almost two weeks and it was not a welcomed sight.
We had run aground.
We all stood utterly awe-struck and horrified by the sight of the mist-capped monstrous cliffs of unknown regions that seemingly arose from nowhere; this iron-grey spiked wall that loomed closer out of the mist. The cliffs meandered off into grey fog in both directions. Back out to sea, and just off the main bulk of the island, was a rocky pinnacle that sat out on its own in the water like an ancient buoy.
Had the island always been there? Was it always hidden behind this wall of fog? Or had we crossed over into something else? My mind ran away with me, and for a moment each, I believed all of the possibilities to be true.
At some point during our lull, the ship must have been heaved up onto the rocky outcrop by the tides. The SS Glenmore had crumpled slowly and unregistered against the side of this alien cliff like a can of potted meat. Water had poured into the bilge below and acted as dead weight. And as like a culmination of our punishment, we were suddenly stranded on this barren and unknown rock in the middle of the ocean.
I closed my eyes and begged for it all to be a nightmare that I was about to wake up from. I pleaded to find myself back in my bed, bolting up in a cold sweat from this horrific dream. But it didn’t happen.
The reality of the situation dawned on us all. No one knew where we were. No other ships would be in the area. Wherever we were, it was at least two hundred miles off our projected course. Captain McPhail conducted a basic calculation using his sextant. He had concluded we were at least northeast of our intended course, although I did not know how he came to that conclusion. All that I knew was we were shipwrecked and had minimal chance of salvaging the SS Glenmore.
It had begun creaking rhythmically now; louder and louder, and it was clear that the tides were pinching its hull against the jagged rocks. Soon the hull would give way and the ship would collapse in. And slowly, salt foam and water and icy death would creep into its bowels. The ship would not survive the day. It would be crumpled against the rocks ignominiously and I wondered how many ships before us had suffered the same end on this lonely alien island.
This realisation of our fate brought with it a heavy sense of hopelessness and doom about the men. Some began praying, others sobbed and sighed. After that, they began pooling the resources and taking inventory of what we had. There was a lot of talk about repairing the ship, sending out scouts, or maybe even fortifying the vessel as a shelter until rescue arrived. All of them were deemed impractical. It would be over a month before we were listed as overdue and perhaps another two months until we were found. Harper confirmed that we had enough rations for only one month but without any shelter, the men would perish.
I did my best to keep from being intrusive, but all the same listened carefully and exhibited a willingness to help. I was effectively a dead-man-walking. It would only be a matter of time before one of them came for me in my sleep with a fish knife as retribution. They all blamed me for this, and perhaps they were right. But I was resolute that I did not want to die on this miserable rock with them, nor be buried at sea for all the eels and crustaceans to peck and nibble at on my way down to the bottom. I was prepared to do anything to survive.
The fog lifted in the afternoon. Its blanket drew back to reveal fully the desolate and grey island before us. We looked upward to the cliffs and saw how nauseatingly tall and precarious they were with their uniform aspects. It was clear that there was no beach nor low lands to head for. Even if there was, we had no rowboats to row to them in. They had been destroyed during the storm. The water was so cold and currents so vicious that even the strongest swimmer would last mere minutes.
After some time debating, the men had agreed that the only way onto the island was up the cliffs. From the belly of the ship, they produced some improvised climbing gear from the hooks and ropes about the vessel. They put it on and began their impromptu planning of how to ascend up the precarious cliffs.
It was at this time that I noticed something else. I stood there amongst the crew, and as they all chatted, I glanced off to my right, off the ship and back at the dark grey face of the cliff. There, I spotted these strange symbols carved into the rock. I frowned at first, unsure of what I was looking at. But, as I took a step forward and observed them further, I could see these bizarre runes carved deep into the stone. I’d never seen any markings nor language like it before. They looked ancient—primordial even. Like stoneage finger paintings on the walls of their caves. The wreck was close enough to the cliff that I could almost lean over the railing and touch them. It sent a shudder down my spine as I realized we were not the first ones to come to the bleak unknown island.
“Hey, there’s something here,” I said, gesturing to the unknown hieroglyphs, but no one listened to me.
I stared at the symbols for a long time, almost hypnotized by their ancient aspects. The world around me fell silent and everything around the markings blurred. Whoever carved them into the rock, done so a very long time ago.
Captain McPhail snapped me out of my trance as he accosted me. He came up to me with a big snarling grin. He slapped me on the back and I came back to reality with a snap. He was in the first team and seemed very happy about it. For the first time since the crash, I had noticed he held a distinct twinkle of challenge in his eyes. He was smiling for some reason.
The plan was to have Harper, Chamberlain, Captain McPhail and a few others climb the cliff first and then throw down the ropes for the rest of us to scale up them with the men above assisting with the winching. Luckily, the bases of the cliffs had a lot of step-ups and ledges that the men could use to gain some ground. They were able to scramble up at least a third of the face without the need for the climbing gear. The downside was the ledges were slick with algae and a misplaced footing would mean a long fall onto jagged wet death.
Once they had their improvised harnesses on, they tactfully discussed their route up with each other, pointing and gesturing to various spots in the face that could prove dangerous. I did not know their experience with climbing but solemnly hoped they knew what they were doing. After Captain McPhail had sauntered up to me with his swaggering bravado and a waft of whiskey to follow, he leaned in with his arms folded, like a man discussing gambling odds with another punter.
“Fancy your chances, doctor?” He grinned. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin was flushed. “Anything can happen to ye now…”
“Do you?” I retorted, facing him now. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to attempt that with whiskey in your blood?”
“No better time, doctor. No better time! If I die, I’ll die with a big fuckin’ smile on my face. If I don’t die, well, I’ll still have one on my chops, and be a bit closer to heaven!” He grinned, showing the whites of his teeth.
I folded my arms and looked him up and down. “I was referring to your abilities to make sound judgments whilst intoxicated.”
His eyes darkened at the remark. He leaned into my space and I smelt the stench of hard liquor on his breath even more. “Is that what you do, is it?” He barked at me, almost pushing his forehead into mine. “Make sound judgments? Like your judgment to curse this voyage? Oh yes, doctor, I can see your brain is fuckin’ shipshape with all that elixir in your veins. Thanks to ye and your cross, we’re all here with you. You caused this. Whatever Devil is out there, you summoned it! Bah!”
He then spat at my feet and stepped over the bow of the ship with a scowl to begin the climb. I could not muster the courage to argue. He was right.
Chamberlain was the first one to climb. He carefully stepped up, ledge by ledge, then Captain McPhail, then the rest of them. The ones who stayed on the ship watched as the figures on the cliff slowly faded into the mist.
An hour went by and no one spoke. I turned to face out to sea once more. If the men were to kill me, then it would be now. I had my back to all of them and it was quiet. I solemnly waited for one of their blades to slip into my ribs, right between my lungs. I was almost accepting of my fate. But, it never came. I heard no creeping footsteps maneuvering up behind me, no hushed chatter, nothing. Instead, the waves lapped unbroken against the ancient island and what remained of the SS Glenmore, and we all stood alone, waiting. The raw smell of seaweed and saltwater crawled up my nose and I waited.
After another hour or so, a dirtied brown rope dropped down from the mist and that was our invitation to leave the ship behind for good.
“Come up boys! The rope is fixed to a boulder. She won’t go nowhere!” Someone above said, and, with it, we heard the pandemoniac cackling echoing down to us, like they had seemingly gone mad up there. Then, it sounded like they were singing. It sounded like some old sea shanty. How long had they been up there? I wondered. How long had we been down here on the decaying ship? Our souls lurking in the corner of ruin?
Those of us back on deck had bagged up our essentials and personal effects and we each prepared to make the climb and leave the ship to the mercy of the seas. I was first to attempt the climb. I walked past a few men who were holding their flat caps in their hands in a kind of reverence. Like the old lady back at the docks, it was a gesture I didn’t appreciate. I moved past them and came to the rope. Then, I stood at the base of it and looked around at what crew remained on the SS Glenmore.
Simmonds, the cabin boy, nervously nodded to me in an attempt to display confidence, but his eyes betrayed him. He was scared. I couldn’t blame him. No one else showed concern for the boy. He was only a young lad and there was not much muscle on him.
His braised black hair fell limply across his narrow boyish face and he looked slightly sick; as if taken with a fever. The glint of terror in his eyes made me wonder briefly what his story was. Had he run away from home? Had he committed a crime? If I was to survive the climb, I decided to ask him about his life.
“You’ll be fine, Simmonds,” I said as I tugged the dangling rope closer to my torso.
“I know,” he tried to say arrogantly, but the words came out weak, like a whisper that he didn’t believe.
I smiled lightly. “Is your bag compact enough?” I asked. “Only take what you need, okay? We won’t be coming back.”
“I will, doctor,” he then said earnestly, as if he understood my concern for him. “I just wanted you to know… I don’t blame you for…”
“… Thank you,” I nodded. “See you at the top,” I then said, gripping him confidently. He tried to smile back but it came out as a grimace instead.
I turned and gazed upward into the clouds of mist. Something cold and heavy slid into my stomach. But, I began heaving up the side of the jagged and precarious cliff nonetheless. It was a hard climb. Each step up was slow and painful.
Soon, the ship disappeared below me. At about halfway my arms began to shake and the bag I was carrying had slipped off my shoulder to around my neck. It was gagging me and making my breathing very hard. But, I gritted my teeth and refused to let go of the rough rope in my palms. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes that I was ascending, but it felt like hours. My feet were sliding off parts of the wet cliff face and I began to wonder if this would be how I died. Don’t let go, you coward. Don’t let go! My mind screamed at me over and over.
At over halfway, my arms burned and parts of my shoulders went numb. Beads of sweat began rolling off my forehead and into my eyes. I grunted and heaved my body up the sides of this dark and foreboding rock face and entertained the idea of just letting go. Then, I reminded myself that I must hear Simmonds’ story before I died. A stupid motivation for survival, but three-quarters of the way up the cliff face, it was all I had to keep me climbing.
When I did make it to the top, I was greeted by only silence. No longer was there any singing or laughter. No more were there any joyful shanties of sailors’ stories. No one reached down to pull me up either.
I heaved myself up over the lip of the cliff and then crawled across some scree and rocks that cut up all of my legs as all the men simply watched me. I was so tired from the climb that I couldn’t even speak as I crawled closer to the first team. I was only relieved I did not have to hang onto that blasted rope anymore.
They were all huddling in the fog like a circle of gravestones. I rolled and laid on my back for a few seconds and tried to catch my breath, staring up at the flat grey clouded skies above. After panting and spitting some more, I rose to my feet to face the men.
“What’s going on?” I asked, coughing and slurring as I did.
“… Nothing,” someone said. They all had their backs to me and were either kneeling or sitting amongst the rocks. Plumes of dirtied tobacco smoke rose from some of them.
“Who was laughing?” I asked after a tense silence.
“Come, lad?” Chamberlain snapped, looking up at me.
“We heard laughing from down there. Sounded like you lot were singing up here…”
“Huh!” Someone else snapped.
“… No one was laughing,” Captain McPhail said quietly as he sat with his pipe upon a lonely and blackened rock. His eyes had gone a clouded grey again. “Take a look around, doctor. What the hell do we have to fuckin’ sing about?” He growled.
I blinked slowly, then soon looked around and saw what they meant.
As my eyes adjusted, I bare-witnessed our own end—A stark and barren end. What I saw was utter boundless desolation in every direction. The whole island was nothing more than a primordial volcanic rock in a vast and black sea. To our right was a small mountain about thirty kilometres away. To our left was an unending field of rocks and boggy emptiness. The lurid sprawl of lakes across the volcanic marshland sparkled intensely under the low white sun, their scintillation magnified only by the unyielding mist. There were no trees. There were no animals, just the ripping winds and endless silence of isolation. I fell to my knees.
No one said anything for a long time. We each breathed out heavily and each man fell in on themselves. It must have been another hour that we all sat there for.
Captain McPhail and his constituency had begun talking about what to do and how to get off the island. They huddled together their talks were low and serious. I wasn’t a part of that discussion so I never heard what they decided. Instead, I was sitting at the cliff edge alone, helping up those who made the climb. No one else was particularly interested in helping them, so I took it upon myself. It’s ironic, as not two days previous I had wished death upon all of them.
One by one, the rest of the men made the climb from the sinking ship and up to hollow dread. Most of that day was swallowed up by the climb. We were all so very tired. At some point in the afternoon, I performed a headcount and realised that one was missing—Simmonds. He was still down there. He’d chosen to go last for some bizarre reason.
I then edged closer to the precipice to see if I could spot him making the climb, but there was only a sea of mist below.
“Simmonds, you there lad?” I shouted down into the shrouded haze.
After a pause, “I’m coming!” He cried out. “ I’m… I’m…”
“How far up are you?”
“I … I can’t… talk. My arms…”
I drew back and realised that he was struggling. “Keep going, Simmonds! You can make it.”
“I can’t hang on…”
“I can hear you! You’re close. Keep going!” I then turned to the men. “We got a man down there! Give me a hand and we’ll heave him in.”
“Who is it?” Someone asked nonchalantly.
“Does it matter?” I screamed. “Give me a hand!”
But no one did. They all turned away and looked with ambivalence at the earth below their feet instead; all of them too caught up in the tangle of their own despair.
My face went red with hatred. “Help!” I bellowed. “Help! What is wrong with you? He’s one of us!”
Captain McPhail took a brief moment from his pipe to speak. “If a soul can’t make that climb, then they surely won’t survive what we’re about to face,” he said in an icy tone. “The lad’s done for…”
“What?” I bellowed. “Please!” I then begged the men. “I helped you lot up, didn’t I?”
“Face it, doctor. We’re all dead. It’s better for the lad this way. Better than starving… better than…,” Captain McPhail muttered and then went quiet.
“No!” I shouted “This is not right! He’s alive! The same as you!”
From over the edge, I could hear Simmonds’ desperate squeals. I turned and grabbed hold of the rope alone, refusing to believe the captain’s merciless statement. I began tugging the rope upward.
“Hold on, Simmonds! I’m going to pull you up,” I shouted.
I tried to pull him up for a few minutes, but he was heavier than he looked, or maybe I was just too weak. I couldn’t heave him up.
“I can’t hold on,” Simmonds squawked from below at some point. He was crying now.
“Come on, man! Keep going! Wrap your arms around the rope. Create a knot over your waist!” I shouted, peering down into the unending mist. I looked back at the men and still pleaded for help, but none came. Then I heard a desperate yelping that sounded like a dog drowning in freezing water.
“Simmonds?” I barked. “Are you there?”
The rope suddenly went slack in my hands. It fell loose. Then I heard a guttural panicked scream echo up through the mist down below, then nothing. I stared over the edge and into oblivion and knew he’d fallen.
“Simmonds! Answer me, man!”
But he didn’t. The boy from Birmingham was dead. My mouth dropped and I could do no more than concentrate on the rope burns on my palms. Behind me, the men gawked and shrugged, like it was all some obscure pantomime. I turned to face them each and couldn’t think of the right words to describe my disgust for them all. Like the whale, Simmonds’ death would hang over my conscience for as long as I lived. I walked past what remained of the crew and situated myself upon a rock away from them all. I wanted to scream until my face collapsed in on itself. I wanted to tear my own face off at the shame.
Simmonds was his name. No one knew anything about him, and no one cared. A boy too young for the sea. Too young for whaling. Too young for anything. I only wished I could have done more for him. But such is the way of the world. Only the cruel survive.
Days went by. We took our belongings and headed further inland in search of food and shelter, wading through the snow and the bog. Each man his own enemy. Everyone was tired to the bone. No one talked anymore. Dehydration, starvation, and emaciation were now internal demons that thrashed at our souls as if limb from limb. We all just kept walking around aimlessly through the blizzards and the mist in search of wood and materials to create a raft of sorts. But there was nothing. There was barely any plant growth, let alone trees. The stuff that did grow consisted mostly of moss and some scurvy grass. It was all sickly and yellow and barely alive. This place truly felt like the edge of the world.
We fished in some of the lakes and were able to catch a few ‘Salvelinus alpinus’ or Arctic charr fish as they are more commonly known. But, without the means to cook them, they tasted truly vile and would often induce bouts of diarrhoea. The rations were almost gone, and that was only one of our plights. The men had begun to turn on each other.
Frequent bickering and accusations of stealing rations had splintered the group into separate packs. Everyone hated each other. More than anything, we had no shelter. The tents we attempted to set up would often blow over in the unrelenting winds that seemed to mercilessly rip across the primordial landscape. It seemed that, now, more than ever before, everything was against us.
Most nights, I simply huddled down into my coat and buried my head deep in my arms and prayed for death. The cold crept slowly into my body, and each time I felt as if I were drifting off, I remembered again the noises that Simmonds made when he died; I remembered the sounds of the whale screaming as it was harpooned, and they both felt like haunting ghosts of my judgment.
The men were getting weaker, and, every day, we barely managed five kilometres walking. Edwards died in his sleep. I found him frozen-stiff under one of the collapsed tents. His face was a lurid white, eyes frozen open, and his skin twinkled from all the ice in his pores. No one had any eulogies for him. We left him buried under the tent and moved on towards the ridge on the east of the island.
We moved on through the fog. And each step took us further away from our homes. But worst of all, there was a presence in that fog. Something hungry. Everyone heard it, but only I seemed to acknowledge it. Ghosts of the fallen, of all those lost sailors before us. Voices emerged, then faded again into the shroud around us, merging with the grey. I truly started to believe we had crossed over into something else. Everything about the island was unnatural.
At night, it was different. The rock-strewn boggy plains of dread where we made camp were full of strange rustlings, of whispers, of glowing eyes. Past the faint flickering of our oil lamp, we each saw them, yet none dared to mention their presence. The men quietly prayed that the eyes belonged to wolves. But it was something else and we all knew it—There were other things out there, evil things. I held my cross tight in my hands and prostrated myself before God. I begged for forgiveness.
By the time we reached the mountain some days later, we were down to thirteen men and our rations were gone. We reached the ridge at nightfall, by which point the steadily rising storm that had brought us to the island had returned.
It rained and rained, and the winds lashed against our exposed skin like burning embers. My face was blistered red from the cold and the hail. Everything was inky dark and no one could see anything in the twilight haze. We must have climbed about halfway up the hill when we decided we could neither advance nor head back down. It was a precarious climb and scrabbling up the rocks was indeed impossible, but descending back down was inconceivable, especially in the current weather. The storm roared up above and I knew if we stayed out in it for much longer then none of us would see the dawn. We each shivered and shouted at each other what to do. After a few minutes of deliberation, I looked around, and there, I saw it.
I had found a rocky outcrop that had a slight overhang for shelter—A small burrow underneath a giant boulder that at least covered us from the rain. It was our only hope. So the remaining thirteen men of the SS Glenmore all huddled on top of each other in its crevasse. It was utterly miserable. We were cold and wet to the core; hungry and so tired we could scarcely think straight. The night went on like a blade and it seemed like the storm would never end. In search of relief, I pushed my head harder against the slick rock and eventually slept. It was a low, writhing kind of sleep.
Later, in the middle of the night, however, something caused me to stir up from my slumber. A panicked gasp of air and I opened my eyes. Then I blearily rose my head up and looked around at the sleeping men about me. It wasn’t coming from any of them. But I was sure I had heard something and I had the distinct impression that someone, or even something, had been standing over me as I slept.
I looked around for a few moments to see what was near me in the gloom, but as I did, something else caught my eye. I was unsure what I was staring at to begin with. There was an odd blackness against the wetness of the rough stone where once there was only rock. Now, there was a hole. I swear it was not there before. Next to my head was a small fissure in the rock face, about two feet wide. It sloped down and backwards into the ridge at a steep angle like a mineshaft. The worst part was it had these unknown hieroglyphs carved in a circle around the edge of it. I trembled and gazed into the hole. Then I reached over and woke the men up.
“There’s something here,” I said eventually. But, everyone was too tired to respond. “It’s a mineshaft. Look…”
Captain McPhail reluctantly leaned up from his stupor to look over my shoulder at where I was pointing. “What is it, doctor?” He grumbled. Chamberlain and Hammond had started bickering with each other over letting the warmth out from their clothing.
“Look. There’s a tunnel here,” I said. “It’s got…” My hands glided over rough engravings in the rock face. “It’s got markings around it. Pass me a candle.”
After a few moments debating, Harper passed me a lite candle and I held it up to the edge of the entrance. I then drew back in terror as I realized that these markings were the same hieroglyphs I’d observed on the edge of the cliff. Whoever made those had carved these also. Shivers scrapped their way down my spine.
“It’s nothing. Go back to sleep,” Captain McPhail shrugged.
But, it wasn’t nothing. As I examined the archaic glyphs, all of us heard this rousing throaty growl emanate from down in the tunnel. It came up from the darkness like a gust of wind and ran through us all. The men quivered.
“… What in God’s name was that?” Harper asked quietly.
Then the voice vanished again like the stir of a sea breeze and all we were left with was the vacuous emptiness that the noise had left behind. We glanced at each other.
“There are people down there…” I whispered furtively, reeling back away from the mysterious hole.”
“It’s wolves,” Captain McPhail quipped.
“Wolves don’t make fires,” I replied, sniffing the air. “I can smell it down there.”
Captain McPhail perked up at the announcement. “So it’s people? They must have food. They must have warmth,” Captain McPhail said. He stepped over me and edged closer to inspect it. He then held his hand out to the shaft. “He’s right. It’s drawing in air. It’s warm…”
The men all looked at each other, unsure what to do or say next.
“We should go in,” Captain McPhail said looking into the dark foreboding hole.
“We don’t know what’s down there,” I replied.
“Shelter is down there!” he retorted.
“Or who’s down there. Look at those symbols,” I said and pointed to them. “I saw those same symbols on the cliff right where we shipwrecked. Coincidence?”
The men looked at each other, then at the markings, and each man trembled with fear.
“This voyage has been cursed from the start.”
“He’s right. All of this, the dreams of white light, the bad omens, those signs. That’s Satanic that is,” Chamberlain said, pointing at the glyphs. “That’s black magic.”
“Shut it, Chamberlain!” McPhail barked.
“That’s Hell down there,” he whimpered, then went quiet.
“No, it’s not! It’s just some bloody Innuits!”
“Captain, we can’t go in there. What if we can’t get back out?” I said.
McPhail then sighed and looked over me at all his weary and nervous men. The storm above showed no signs of stopping. He glanced up at the churning black skies filled with rain and lightning. “I am not dying up here on this fucking rock,” he growled. “I’ll take my chances.”
The men bowed their heads. Captain McPhail had decided to crawl in first. After a moment’s hesitation, he leaned down and reluctantly placed his hand into the crevasse in the earth. The crew watched on.
He closed his eyes and gulped.
As he crawled in, I began reciting the prayer of our Lord to myself. “Behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them,” I muttered softly as I watched his feet disappear into blackness; like he had been swallowed whole by a great snake.
After another pause, Chamberlain headed in next, then Harper. I went in after then. The remaining men followed behind me and we each crawled forward on our bellies like primitive worms through the unending darkness of the tunnel. Ironically, mankind had escaped the caves aeons ago, now here we were, finding ourselves regressing back down into that same blackness for shelter. The peal of the storm disappeared behind us and only the faint dripping of cave water was heard instead. Each man held a candle outstretched in front and each man guided himself through the abyssal black with it. We each grunted and heaved down through the inchoate cavity of the ancient hill. The tunnel was slick with algae and dripping water and the smell of freshly-turned composte slithered up through my nose. The jagged slimy rocks we writhed over cut and sliced through our clothing. The tunnel had an almost serpent-like quality to it. It weaved and meandered through the earth and down the stratum of rock unhindered, like a boisterous river through passive sands.
We moved on.
“This is unnatural,” I said. “This is not right. God is not down here.”
“I know,” someone replied. “We should not have come down here.”
I crawled on my stomach, my only view ahead being the soles of the man’s shoes against my nose. Had I been at the back of the line, I would have stopped and chosen to die right there. But, the crew we behind me and I couldn’t cease edging forward. I wished I had refused. For what lay waiting for us in that infernum was a fate worse than any death.
After a very long time scrabbling down through the tunnels, Captain McPhail shouted back that he saw a glowing light ahead. With renewed enthusiasm, he scrambled towards it. We all followed. We crawled forward towards it and one by one, we then came into a small domed chamber. Dark and rounded. Stalactites hung low from the ceiling all around like daggers. The air was moist and sticky and the walls were shiny with cave water. And there we saw them.
I gulped and almost fainted when I did enter. There was a glowing white fire. Hot with coals. And huddling around that fire was a small group of sickly and stark-naked figures. They each looked up at us as we entered. We reeled back at the horrifying sight of them all illuminated there by the flames like morbid apparitions. They looked emaciated yet preternaturally virile, and their faces harboured this alien savagery, like of a pack of hungry wolves. On their bodies were strange tattoos of arcane hieroglyphics and other bodily mutilations such as scarification and branding. They were the same markings I’d seen on the cliffs and around the tunnel.
“Good god,” Harper exclaimed as he faced the group of ghouls standing before us. “What in the name of…”
There was a silence. None of us moved. The people before us uncoiled slowly and stood up. They stared at us. They were smiling now. Against the candescence of the flames, their absent milky eyes glowed unnaturally, like hyenas’ eyes under the moonlight. Hollow white opals that reflected minds more animalistic than human.
“Hello,” Captain McPhail said gently to them. But they looked at each other giddily instead of responding. “We are lost,” he then said.
None of them replied. The tallest one’s lips drew back into a snarl. His teeth were sharp and narrow, like fangs. They scanned us up and down and sniffed hungrily.
“Who in God’s name are they?” Harper said. “Why are they on this island? What the fuck is this place?” But no one had the nerve to reply.
“We have gone down very far,” I announced. “When you do enter Hell you do so on your belly. That’s what it says in—”
“Calm down,” Captain McPhail shouted. “It’s not Hell. They’re just people. We’ve done nothing wrong here. Let’s just calm down and talk to them.”
The most terrifying aspect of the confrontation was how they didn’t even look alive. They appeared completely ghoulish and unnatural. It was like you could see through them.
“They must know the island. Perhaps we can trade with them and get out of here?” Cartwright said. “We got enough gold don’t we?”
“I don’t think they want to trade…” I muttered as I edged away, attempting to retreat from the group. “We should leave.”
But it was too late to leave. They were behind us now. They had surrounded us and had slithered closer. Some of them clutched crude implements and blades as they circled ravenously.
Captain McPhail held his hands up in a gesture of goodwill, looking around at each of them. “I. Give. You. Gold. You. Give. Me. Wood?” He gestured then reached into his blazer and produced a small leather drawstring bag full of coins. He tossed it at their feet and none of them reached to pick it up.
The castaways’ eyes glowed like burning embers locked behind a wood stove’s glass. One of them screeched. We all recoiled, but, the pack of savages moved too fast for us. Before anyone of us could unsheathe their daggers, the bloodthirsty cave dwellers were above us, hitting and stabbing us into submission. Four of the crew were killed right there and then. They were sliced repeatedly in the throat and head and amidst the chaos, I only caught glimpses of their bodies collapsing into the primordial earth. The purple blood seeped out of their lifeless faces. The firelight danced in the pooling crimson.
Captain McPhail was the only one to make a meaningful challenge. He rushed forward to attack one of the ghouls. He’d managed to strangle and stab one of them to death until he was wrestled off him and dragged to the floor by the group. The rest of us then watched on in utter horror as they ganged up on him and smashed his head in with rocks. Blood gushed up in thick brown geysers. Just like my vision aboard the ship, I saw our captain laying there with no head. I was so terrified that I could not move. Instead, I simply had to bear-witness his skull being pounded and flattened into the ground like someone was kneading dough.
“Oh, god!” Harper cried in anguish over and over. “Stop! Please, stop!”
But, they didn’t.
After that, the group moved quickly and spilt us up. I was snatched from behind and pulled through a network of narrow tunnels and eventually into a small chamber away from the main hollow.
It was dark and damp in there, darker than any other parts. My feet slid across something slick and sticky as the savages dragged me further away from everyone, further away from it all. They lit the way ahead with a wooden stave and I soon realised what the substance against my feet was—blood. Old congealed blood. In its puddles were strewn parts of the tendons and discarded flesh. I gasped in horror and almost vomited in my mouth at the sight.
“No! No! Get off me!” I shrieked, wriggling desperately to break free from their grasp, but they were strong people. Their strength appeared almost superhuman and I couldn’t help but realise how easily they tackled Captain McPhail and how easily they had dispatched him. I knew I would be no better against them.
As they then tied me to a boulder, I saw barely illuminated in the twilight before me, piles of bones in the corners of the alcoves. And I knew, they had been down in this darkness for a very long time. The whole prospect shocked me to my core. I begged and cried and tried to writhe free from their bindings. But it was no use. I was condemned to the dungeon with the demons.
Something dull and heavy smacked into my head and I went unconscious for a very long time.
This space in between dreams and consciousness was the happiest part of my whole journey. It was the most joy I had ever felt. Since stepping on that accursed ship all those weeks ago, I had experienced nothing but unabating misery. But inside the wanderings of my mind, I felt curiously warm. I dreamt that I was back in Boston. I dreamt I had met someone. I dreamed I had kicked my addiction and had become one of the most prestigious doctors of medicine in Massachusetts. I think I remember the smell of marble also? Champagne? It was where I should have been…
Much later, I awoke in a daze, only to find myself still bound to the wall in that pit. My conscious mind then began to function again. I was suddenly rational once more and remembered exactly where I was. No matter how hard I attempted to fight the reality of my situation, I was still there. This infernum would be my tomb. I cried and pleaded in rebellion, but it was greeted with only widening silence.
So I went still for a long time. I shrunk in on myself. I cried. Through the impenetrable black, I attempted to pear around at my surroundings. But, there was nothing but the unending void and death. The air was thick and damp and hovered languidly around the chambers like wet smoke.
And there was a smell…
More than a smell. That hideous putrid stench of rotting flesh scoured my eyes and nose. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before; a potent acidic miasma of rancid milk and blood and rotting meat that burned as it crawled up my nostrils and past my eyeballs. I felt it in my ravaged lungs. Everything stung and seared with exanthema.
I sobbed. There, in the darkness, the distant screaming and begging and wailing of my crew assailed my ears. They were all sharing my fate. Hour after hour, their cries of pain echoed through the labyrinth.
“They ate the Captain’s heart! They ate his fucking heart!” I heard someone scream in the emptiness. I closed my eyes, not that it would make any difference. Their writhing howling made me think of the old lady. Is this what she wanted for us? Hour after hour, I saw nothing but heaving blackness heavy against my eyes, yet I could still hear them all with me. In the alcoves somewhere, they were killing the men one by one. They were carving them up like the whale, and I could do nothing but hang there in the dark, listening to it all, awaiting my turn.
At one point, I do not know how long after, they dragged what remained of Cartwright back into the chamber. What they had done to him, I didn’t even want to imagine. In the dimness of their candlelight, I caught a glimpse of what remained of his emaciated body— it was now just a wet lacerated chunk of flesh. They had amputated his legs and his arms. They had taken everything from him. He was just this ghastly screaming head and torse now. He was covered in all this blood and dirt. And he was completely out of his mind. He screamed as they leant him against the wall. He screamed when they left and the chamber plunged into blackness once more. He screamed and screamed in the dark next to me until he blew out his vocal cords; then he made a dull yelping sound, like some lone dying duck. This hideous wheezing that came out like a pitiful screech. It was abominable to hear.
I could not endure it any longer. I forced my senses shut and tried to focus on something other than his unrelenting anguished cries. I let my mind wander far away, as far away as I could dare to imagine. My mind retreated in on itself. Even my hearing began to shut down and I soon fell into a deep and dream-filled sleep. Everything in my head began to blur. My dreams tumbled over each other like a string of unconnected thoughts and feelings. Before lapsing into a kind of trance, I recalled how Captain McPhail was probably right. Simmonds was spared a far worse death than the one he suffered. At least his soul would be untainted for the afterlife. We, on the other hand, would suffer gravely.
Endlessly, we were subjected to horrid abuse and torture from the crude people of the cave. My crew screamed, and I heard them all. One by one, their cries faded, slithered into nothingness, never to be heard again. And I hung there, awaiting my turn.
I had never entertained the notion of resisting nor fighting my captors. It seemed redundant. After all, where would I escape to? Instead, I could only long and beg for finality to this nightmare. But, it never came. My release continued to elude me and I simply would not die. I waited in the wet cold darkness alone. Each minute crawled by like an hour, and still, I would not die. I pleaded with the Lord to let me leave. In my most raveged moment, I stared up desperately at the black ceiling and spoke the holy words, “Lord Jesus, I confess my sins and ask for your forgiveness. Please come into my heart as my Lord and Savior. Take complete control of my life and help me to walk in your footsteps daily by the power of the Holy Spirit. Please Lord, save me…”
I slurred and mumbled those words over and over. But, still, I would not die. How long I had been in that chasm of despair I dreaded to think, only that it felt like an eternity; it truly felt like death itself had enveloped us all in its dark wings and taken us off to a realm where no mercy nor quarter would be given. This was our doom. I would be sentenced to wander the umbral plains of darkness alone forever.
For weeks I was down there. I felt like I could not endure the torment any longer. At my weakest moments, I thought of suicide. But I could not do that. That would only condemn me deeper. Soon, I realized escaping the pit was my only chance of salvation. An animal caught in a snare will chew off its own leg to escape. I wondered whether I had the stomach to do the same? In the end, passiveness appeared futile. I knew I had to escape.
With a fresh resolution within me, I set to work attempting to cut through the ropes around my wrists and ankles. Against my back, I had somehow found a sharpened and jagged outcrop of rock that could help. I rubbed and rubbed my bindings against it until my wrists ran slick with blood. I scratched and scratched until finally, the rope gave way.
My slashed hands were then free and they suddenly tingled with the renewed circulation. I slumped to the floor of the dungeon in a crumpled heap like a newborn fawn. And I laid there for a while. My breaths came out acidic and heavy in the damp pit. Then I set to work on the bindings around my legs.
Somewhere in the labyrinth, the guttural screams of the forgotten souls echoed through the sickly air all around me. I refused to believe that I was to join them.
Once I was free of my ropes, I got up steadily. It was the first time in a long time that I’d stood on my feet. Then I explored the network of dark tunnels alone. They were absent and echoing. Without torchlight, I had to feel my way through them. They slid off into interminable blackness all around. The ground was sticky and cold against my bare feet and my whole body ached. But, through sheer will alone, I pushed forward through the horror. Now and then, I stepped onto a bone or a shard of a skull. The fragments of the fallen only galvanized my desire to get out.
What came after was a frenzied scourging of resources and means to escape. I had to believe that this was not my fate. If there was anything that was going to propel me out of this dimness, it was the power of my own mind and my faith in Jesus. I didn’t care if I died the second I escaped the cave, just as long as my spirit did not perish down here; just as long as I saw the sunset one last time.
I remembered briefly my readings aboard the SS Glenmore. Marcus Aurelius once said, ‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find true strength.’
My heart swelled and I felt a surge of energy. It would not be long before they returned to find me gone. I had to hurry.
The cave network was not as big as I first imagined. It consisted of two main chambers. The rest was merely a series of tunnels and cubbyholes that circled around in a loop and back to those same main chambers. In counting my steps, I calculated the network to be no more than five hundred metres in diameter. I moved forward some more and felt around everything until I was satisfied that I had the whole area mapped out in my mind. But in doing so, I noticed something else.
As I ran my hands across the rough walls, I could not help but note something incongruous about the whole dungeon. There were cuts and slices along the cave flats. I felt with my palms the distinct impressions of quarrying and mining. At some point, these tunnels had been excavated. Yet, the methods used felt primal and rudimentary and not performed within the last few centuries. That notion alone made me gasp. I felt absolutely horrified and my stomach churned at the idea of this iniquitous cave network sheltering generations of species that would have navigated them well before ancient times and when the world was still young. With a rush of panic, I soon realized that it was the same people who’d made those symbols on the cliffs.
“What is this place?” I gasped.
This cave, whatever it was, had seen thousands of years’ worth of bones; most of which had crumbled and dissolved into the very earth I was standing on. The floor was made of them. Those things sitting around the fire were not human. Maybe they once were, but not anymore. I dared not to imagine what they were instead.
I had initially planned to explore the network and then return to my bindings for later escape, but after what I saw next, I knew I would not suffer one more hour in the godforsaken pit.
It was as I attempted to make my way back to my bindings that I saw what would await me if I stayed. Near the main chamber, I found Harper’s bloated maggot-infested corpse. It was discarded into a small crevasse. His black, pitted flesh, squirmed with the pulsing of the burrowing maggots. All the gluttony of the caves consuming him. I could only endure a fleeting glance at what remained of him, knowing then deep in my soul that he would remain there for all millennia, amongst all the others.
I quickly averted my gaze and forced my hand against my mouth like a vice, and continued on further through the cave system. I tried looking for my crew, but I found nothing. There was only me left now and I did not know why. Only me and the cannibals in the cave.
A few times they almost caught me. Some of them were wandering around aimlessly in the tunnels. Whenever I did hear them coming, I would lay down among the piles of bones until they passed me by.
Eventually, I came to the exit tunnel; that small shaft of death that brought us down into the deepest pit of Hell. I clambered into it desperately and began heaving my weary and drained body up through its throat. I did not know how long I spent on my stomach crawling upward. Each grunt and thrust up the rock felt as if it would be my last. I prayed and cried and truly thought that I would never see the end of the tunnel. It went on for what felt like days.
But somehow, perhaps through sheer will, I made it out. When I did, I scrabbled out onto the boulder and clawed for something to pull myself upon. I found a sprout of weeds and used it as a grapple to hoist myself up onto the boulder. Up there, all of our discarded gear was still in the crevasse near the entrance. Wet moulded sleeping bags and used-up ration packs were strewn across the rocks like the bones of fallen crows. I staggered and stood up slowly, took a step forward over the dead men’s gear, and huffed and wiped the sweat from my brow. Then I looked out to the expanse. Something took over me.
Stretching out before me was the same stark and dead landscape. Above me, the sun was shining. It made everything on the island in front shimmer tremulously. The sight of that lurid landscape of fog and mires made me burst into tears. Without warning, I crumbled to my knees and sobbed deeply. By some miracle, I had found a way out. I cried and cried.
The whole ordeal had made a mockery of my soul and reaved it from my very being. I cried and sobbed until there was nothing left. Soon after, I sunk back in on myself, a withered husk, and resigned myself to staring endlessly, silently, unmoving, upward at the loaming clouds.
It’s dark now. And there’s no one else left. None of the dwellers from below have come up for me. I am alone, writing this confession only for myself. Because I believe no one else will ever read it.
As I sit here, wondering what it’s all for, I cannot stop looking up at the mysterious monstrous pools of green up there. Why did I come here? Was it all pre-ordained? Has God been watching the whole thing? Why did he not save his children?
Those kinds of questions horrify me as much as what is below me right now.
Is this real?
How long have I been on this island?
How long ago did we set sail from Aberdeen port?
So many questions. Did I hallucinate the whole thing? Did any of them ever exist? As I sit here alone, staring up into the fathomless abyss of our primordial genesis, I can only speculate why I alone made it out of the deepest pit of Hell. But, I have this horrifying recurring notion within my mind—Did I even make it out? Or like the rest of them, am I still down there in that endless infernum, doomed now to wander in the blackness for all eternity? Am I only imagining myself sitting up here staring up into utter beauty? The final death rattle of my mind before it retreats and coils in on itself forever. I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t anymore… I can’t even remember my name.
I believe we all died aboard that ship in the storm. Somewhere soon after leaving Aberdeen port, we must have sailed through…something—a hole in the world. And now we are all here. It washed up what remained of our spirits to the shores of the nine circles, the haunted edges of oblivion.
I believe I am dead already and merely imagining myself writing this. I see the reason why we landed here. It is our punishment for the trespasses against this world. And only I was permitted to see the hallowed skies one last time because only I have repented. This is purgatory. The rest of them refused to acknowledge their sins. Now they are all down there in Hell. It is where the remnants of their souls shall slumber forever, with all the other forgotten ones. And the sun will set forever over us all.
I don’t have long now. My body is shutting down. Thank the lord. I beg for release. Please, let this nightmare end. I do not want to think anymore. I do not want to acknowledge my existence any longer. Soon, hopefully, it will all be gone; like the tides. Only one thing remains true to me now—my last human thought—Mors Vincit Omnia: Death conquers all…
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Hank BelbinPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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