It’s a cold, hopeless wind that blows across the Southern Seas on these winter nights. Blade-edge gusts skim the waves; paper lanterns swing from the rigging, and the merchandise below decks strains against the swells: statues of boars and elephants, carvings of crocodiles and dung beetles, their marbled visages mocking the dreams of those who bear their burden of passage. On such a night one might remember the deserts of home, rocky outcrops on the husk of the world where fine sand grits the eyes of all who dwell there, and the dunes sing out a pure, wavering tone as the wind whistles through the grains.
Mutinous crews are known to hurl their captains overboard in these waters, their cackling silhouettes lining the rails and watching with glee as their hated master plummets to his doom. If their victims should scream or plead: then, all the better. They say that the souls of those who are dispatched thus haunt the deeps for years afterwards; submerged in icy currents or trapped within subsurface volcanic vents, they wave the remnants of their hands in pathetic gestures that suggest the motions of a paddling child or drowning feline. Eventually they will dissolve, dissipating into plankton and salt at the lightless seabed, their memories and desires joining with the covert dreams of the ocean; and, though they will not know it, washing ashore on a pebble beach or rocky island, from there to enter the bloodstream of the world as if they had never died.
They say also that the mutineers will themselves be cursed, forever to hear their captain’s bitter last words in the creak of the sails, the screams of seabirds, the cracking of ice floes…Those who are punished in this way inevitably succumb to the call of the waters; a ghostly calenture leap into the welcoming bath of eternity, there to suffer the half-death of sorrow that befalls one who thought himself greater than the sea.
I found myself on one such voyage, a brigantine known, then at least, as the Muzawwala – the sundial. Not fifty leagues out from Egypt we sat becalmed, squirming through the dismal waters as if they were soup. As we cast off from port every man and woman at quayside turned to watch us go, their bodies frozen in statuesque postures that seemed to mirror the stone carvings lining our hold. Now, we knew what they were seeing: this vessel was bound for Hell.
The first mate and bo’sun abandoned ship one night while the rest of us slept, taking the rowboat with them. The next morning the ship’s cook, Caleph, reported the food stores as spoiled. He drooled as he relayed the news, giggling in nervous terror as we murmured the prelude to a conspiracy amongst ourselves. Our captain had spent the entire journey locked away in his cabin; none of us had even laid eyes on him.
The eldest of us, a Shi’a of the Oghuz, took command of our revolt. Huddled on deck around a brazier we had fuelled with the rowboat’s abandoned casting pegs, we agreed the captain’s time was nigh; no-one wished to die for a man we had never met. With great care, the Shi’a plucked the lanterns from where they hung on the cordage and placed one before each of us. His knife whittled their wax to an even level. We dipped the wicks into the fire; the act of placing them back into their holders seemed like a ritual of treason, a conspiracy we could all consider ourselves fully complicit in. We doused the brazier.
“Now,” the Shi’a said, “the flame that burns longest shall light the path of betrayal. Until our doom is sanctified, let us tell the tales of our path to this place, and see if the breath of our voices should quench the lanterns first.”
The stories began. Six men and true told their truths, or half-truths, or lies, shivering beneath the constellations on that petrified night. The Shi’a told of fishing schooners, mastheads looming from the mist at the quayside of Cadiz, crates of spice, bejewelled spiders, maps; nephrite statuettes unloaded onto the wharf by legions of bonded slaves, the silent gaze of a woman pitiless in the shadows beyond. He told of time, and its enfolding qualities; he considered, too, that clocks spun their hands backwards in the southern hemisphere. Loath to disagree with the man, having seen what havoc he could wreak on matters far less scientific, we murmured our assent while gulls swooped overhead, their shadows eclipsing the starlight.
Another spoke. “Alexandria,” he said. “I remember the knife-thrust of a harlot on the banks of a canal, a paper boat floating on the surface of a pond.” Drear lantern-light barely illuminated his face; we knew of him as Velo, one from Tunis. His story swerved into paths obscure and confusing: embezzlers, mercenaries; a hooded woman, her gaze burning out from the eye slits of her head-dress; a Persian cartographer whose maps, more fable than veracity, led the teller eventually to the Muzawwala and ruin.
His laugh was a mirthless sound in that great arena. The Shi’a muttered obscenities to himself, then turned his head and spat. Another took up the tale; by then we seemed to be telling the same story. This man, a Bolivian named Arturo, spoke of a dream, one that mirrored the steps of Velo’s account: a knife in the back, the perfidious mapmaker, the mysterious woman, her masked husband beside her, their silhouettes disappearing into the evening bazaar.
He concluded his account thus: “Then I dreamed of the waves that swell over the reefs of Tagula, the feel of the cobblestones beneath my sandals, the glance of a woman.”
Velo’s candle sputtered and died. A new voice broke the silence.
“I know of this city of the dead, and this woman. That night I took her in my arms, and gave her life.” Lakar, an adept of the Navaratnas and the last of us to join the crew, toyed with the tip of his dagger as he spoke. “Her husband and his Blood Guilds were the true rulers of that place. They chased me to the city boundaries in the early morning.” He opened his shirt to reveal an angry crimson slash carved across his ribs. The cutlass scar intimated a treasure route, transcribing its course across the continents to this place. “An eviller man I never saw,” he said, “and she knew it.”
Arturo grinned, revealing uneven rows of blackened teeth, sharpened as if they were dentures he had stolen from the jaws of a great sea beast. Lakar’s eyes burned from the darkness, as if he and Arturo shared two parts of the same face. His lantern faded. The Shi’a’s own light had begun to dwindle. Among us the cook Caleph burned the brightest of all, his flame illuminating his features in waxed curves that seemed to double the hewn face of our figurehead; he, a damned siren leading us on to the reefs of fortune. Lakar hurled his dagger to the boards; there it quivered, a dare to the Gods, the bleat of an abandoned child.
The cry of a gull came from far overhead, echoing from the skin of the water as if we sat within a cathedral, and the bird were the voice of a fallen angel. Lakar continued his tale, even as his lantern’s light bedimmed to embers. He spoke to us of caravans of onyx traders; rotting, amaranth-infested cities in a desert of diamonds; a vow of silence; a woman’s eyes, a masked figure leading her into the glare of the sun.
He spoke till the lantern flame of the Shi’a fluttered and died in a coil of mist. “And you?” Arturo turned to me. His tongue flicked from between his lips; or did it only seem that way in the dying radiance of his own lantern? Mine still burned strong and true, and I felt the call of mutiny, the milk bath of betrayal. “Two stories remain, two torches still burn over the waters.” He laughed, then, alone. I searched my memories, and told my tale.
I spoke of the sombre light of a Seville morning, an endlessly chattering sergeant casting me out into the dust and dew of the sunrise. I spoke of copper mines and granite quarries, teams of slaves expiring at my feet for want of a nugget of gold, a mouthful of silver; then baying for my blood, my investors lying motionless in their suicide circle, pistols at their temples. I recalled poorly glazed chamber pots and the hungry eyes of bankrupt excavators; a notched bar of what I discovered, almost at the cost of my life within the precious metals exchanges of Bombay, to be gilded iron; idle rumours of betrayal in a dying port town that overlooked the whirlpools and oxbow meanders of an inland sea.
I remembered a balloon voyage, an ice-bound race over the Mountains of the Sun, the crags racing toward me as the pilot desperately hurled himself from the basket. Then, a month out from Cape Agulhas: I, a stowaway, the helmsman ordering his sail riggers to cast me into the firmament; the vessel listing, blubber coating its decks, the skipper a drunkard, sperm whales howling their contempt at us from the dark roils of fog that clung to the ice-littered waters of the southern ocean.
My voice died to a whisper, then silence. The rigging above us creaked, the sound of a coffin lid closing on a wasted life. Even as my lantern-light dwindled to naught I recalled a trigger, my finger squeezing it down, down, the sharp retort echoing from the stones as the recoil snapped my wrist backward, and a man’s blood spattering the quarry walls. A decanter: whisky, or poison. I neither knew nor cared as I swigged it back, the mocking, incredulous cackle of my blasphemous companion reverberating from the chancel of the derelict cathedral.
And: the eyes of a woman, the sword-stroke of her husband, the ridges of scarred skin across my chest; my memories calling me onward to a reunion beneath the cold, still stars, a kiss on the forehead of a ghost on the steps of Alexandria, a drunken awakening in the hold of the Muzawwala, a tangle of truths and untruths…
Arturo’s light was already dark. Mine, too, flickered its last rays and expired.
We turned as one to Caleph. He met our gaze, unblinking. His lips quirked upwards for a second.
“Friends,” he said. His lantern burned strong and true. “I have no tales of my own to tell. But there is a story I heard.” He shivered in a sudden chill of wind. His flame scintillated higher even than before, dancing motes of light across his cracked face. “A story of a merchant: one who suffered the grievance of infidelity, the taunts of his rivals. A story of a captain: one who became that way through the thrust of swords, chains of iron sending his own master to an endless sup at the wines of the deep. And those same chains, my friends, sent two of his crew to their doom not three days ago.” Velo gasped; but we all knew it to have been true. Caleph spoke on. “Rum is his only friend, shipmates; rum and despair. And even now, he haunts his own vessel. He squats within his cabin, dreaming of the void, praying for the forgiveness of eternity.”
He rose to his feet and lifted the lantern to his chest. Without a word we followed him, below decks and along drear corridors to the door of the captain’s quarters. He handed the light to me, opened the door and slipped within.
We five – Arturo, the Shi’a, Lakar, Velo, myself – waited in dread silence. Were we, too, to suffer the eternal call of the bottomless deeps? Were we as complicit as the Shi’a, who had rubbed coal tar onto Caleph’s candle almost in plain sight? Not a sound came from inside the cabin. Lakar murmured a prayer, guttural syllables dying away into the silence as the ship bowed and drifted.
Then: the handle turned. I felt a clutch at my throat, an icy grasp of infinitude. The door swung open, and we knew our doom.
For Caleph, Captain Caleph, stood before us, his uniform rumpled, its insignia blood-stained and faded. He held his wrists out in supplication. What were we to do, other than comply?
We tied him and led him to the bow. The sky was full of birds: cormorants, gulls, petrels, their screeching voices summoning the dawn as a breeze finally lifted our sails for a moment. I could feel it: wind, strong and true, scudding across the ocean’s surface like a gust of foulness from the underworld.
Captain Caleph hesitated for no more than a second. Gulls screamed their encouragement: fly! No cry escaped him as he tumbled to the dark waters below. A splash, the faintest of disturbances on the skein of the ocean, and a flurry of wings battered the grave of a man whose condemnation preceded him, whose judgement cleaved our flesh as it had in Alexandria, Cartagena, London…
We hung the lanterns back onto the rigging. Melted wax encased them, forming sculptures of a woman’s face, a cutlass, a chain, a scroll. The birds circled the ship for a while; then they flew eastwards, departing for better company, abandoning their wards to the vicissitudes of the purgatory they had chosen for themselves. And we returned to the ashes of our fire to await the wind, the scars on our chests a treasure map of Hell, and we cartographers of the dead.