March 2020

It is strange to imagine that serpent-men might love serpents. After all, they go to great lengths to wreak destruction on the beasts, travelling far out on the fickle and changing sea to slay them. One might not imagine, too, that serpent-men love the Wetness. Yet they do. I never met a serpent-man who did not hold both the serpents and the sailing season quite dear in his heart. I surely loved both right well, in my own days at that trade. It is a strange kind of affection, one that was not owed simply to these things being my means of profit and promotion. It is a deeper bond, the tie that connects all creatures in struggle – the same as binds falcon and dove, wolf and deer. When, on a calm day, one spies a serpent breaching the black water, diamond-scales glittering on the massive curve of its back, it is a thing of great beauty; and as a ship bears down on it, harpooner scrambling to his post, one cannot feel a sadness that it will soon be dead, hide punctured and oil leaking across the timbers as it is hauled aboard. That, however, is the way of the world. It is the way that I followed myself, as a younger man, until that fateful voyage upon the Whimbrel, where all such things were cast into question.

The first Wetness had come early that year. I had watched from the boat-yard with joy as it filled the great mist-shrouded basin that stretched from the harbour to the horizon. The dark water rose higher every day, first submerging the clouds of fog, then the tips of the highest reef, finally stopping at the lip of the port. What had been an empty void was a bountiful ocean.

For three seasons I had been sailing as a harpooner’s boy aboard the Whimbrel, answering to Master Harpooner Mr. Lachlann Davison, conducting my duties with all due care and attention. This time I was sure that, with God’s help, I would be rewarded with a chance to stand on the hunting-platform and claim a serpent as my own prize. Davison was a tough and quiet man, but he was honourable and generous to those who did good service; in that generosity he was quite unlike his own master, our notorious Captain Munro.

Yet once we had cast out onto the brimming sea, my hopes had been disappointed. Over that long season I had watched Davison take three of the creatures by his own hand. Before every kill, I hoped he might say that it was my turn to handle the iron; but every time he looked at me, he looked also to Captain Munro. Perhaps fearing the old man’s wrath at a missed shot, he took all three himself.

“Watch and learn,” he said, “and your time will come.” I despaired. I had studied his craft for many months now, and with my eyes closed I could bring to my mind the way his legs braced against the swell, the way his eye followed his prey, the way his hand gripped the spear-shaft. I had watched and learned enough. I knew that I would disappoint neither him nor the Captain. The days were growing long, and I feared the pitying looks of my kinsmen and the wharf-girls should I return to the island still unblooded when the Draining came again.

I tested my fears on Bannatyne, the old Soundingman seated at the tiller, plunging-line grasped in his wrinkled hand.

“How many more days of Wetness?” I asked.

“We may hunt until St. Phadran’s day, boy,” he said, scowling.

“But it’s already past Beltane,” I said, my voice raw with disappointment. I had thought we would be out longer.

“You’ll be lucky if we stay out that long,” he said, with a cruel chuckle. “Munro’s got three beasts already. Your Master Davison is onto his last harpoon. If the Captain’s a wise man, he’ll head back to port now, before the men get nervous of the Draining.”

Sailors are fearful men, and serpent-men most of all. The sky’s every shifting tone marks some dark omen or other: storms, scurvy, poor hunting, sharp reefs. Yet it is the Draining that they fear most of all, that time when the sea begins to sink, at first slowly, but quickening so that soon you can see it dropping with your own eyes. I had heard the old men say that in times past, before I was born, one could count the lambing-seasons and know the moods of women by the Draining, so regular was its coming; by the time of my childhood, however, the seasons had become uncertain. There was great tension and excitement as the Wetness drew to a close. As a boy, I had stood at the port and counted all the ships safely home, watching them dock and unload their cargo of scales and machine-oil. Occasionally, a ship would just miss the turning of the season and would need winching up to the docks from the sinking sea. Then, the beach became a clifftop as the water dropped away, eventually disappearing into a cloud of mist at the ocean-floor. Even from the safety of land, it was fearful to imagine what lay down below – perhaps the beasts of the depths, now crawling naked and hungry in the half-light, or perhaps nothing but a void, stretching from the cliffs to the world’s end until the Wetness and the seas returned. There were a few men, old beggars on the wharf, who claimed they had been caught at sea when the Draining came and had seen the dried ocean-floor; but few put much stock in their addled ramblings. Many times more were the men who by the poor judgement of their captains had been caught in the Draining and were never seen again.

Sailing aboard the Whimbrel, I was not afraid of it. I was young, and I was sure that fate had marked me for success on this voyage. I felt a proud disdain for the miserable old Soundingman’s caution, and I had trust in Captain Munro – a fierce and devilish man he might be, but there was no finer sailor and serpent-hunter. And I still trusted Davison, knowing that one day he would put his faith in me.

Davison must have read the disappointment on my face after my words with the Bannatyne, for when I returned to my station on the hunting-deck, he fetched me a clap on the shoulder with his shovel of a hand.

“Season’s not over yet, lad, and we’ve one iron left unbent,” he said, laughing. Then he seized my arm and leaned into my face, his breath salty and rich.

“I’ve taken a good haul for myself already,” he said, casting a finger across the three serpents laid out on the deck, their scales glinting in the sea-mirrored light.

“If we spy a fourth serpent, here’s my word – this strong arm of yours will be the one to cast the shot.”

With that promise, I knew that before this season was out, I would take a serpent of my own or I would die in the attempt. I was the first on deck with every sunrise, straining my eyes at the horizon, searching the immense flatness of the sea for the beautiful arch of a serpent’s back. Yet for all my efforts, nothing broke the surface bigger than a leaping water-wolf. As the days passed, I noticed a grumbling and muttering amongst the crew, directed towards the Captain. We had taken enough this season, they said. Port was calling, and Munro was still on a course out to sea, God take him.

Munro, for his part, stayed silent but for a few clipped orders. His most common station was on the hunting-deck, where we had hung the three great bodies of this season’s serpents. At times he seemed to be admiring them and inspecting them for quality; at others he seemed to be guarding them, as if he feared that one of them might suddenly burst back into life and slither back into the ocean. From my position, I overheard my Master strike up words with him.

“Three beasts make a fine haul, Captain,” said Davison as he swatted gulls from the serpent bodies with the tip of his harpoon. The Captain grunted in response.

“We’ll get a worthy bounty,” continued Davison. “The railway-men and metallurgists are offering a handsome purse for oil and scale. There’ll be enough for every man to feed his family until the next Wetness.”

There was a moment of silence. I fought back a desperate urge to tear my eyes from the horizon and look at them.

“Would you have me turn back to port, Mr. Davison?” said the Captain.

“With every day, the Draining draws closer. I would not bargain against the season, sir.”

“You say that three beasts are enough. How much more adequate, then, would be four? We have one iron left to cast, and we have our harpoon-master in fine health. I say that we would be fools to return now.”

Unable to resist, I turned the corner of my eye to the two men. They stood facing one another straight, arms across chests, heads held proudly. For all that I desperately wished he might, Davison would not yield to the Captain. I did not want to see him clapped in the hold; but more than that, I wanted nothing more than another two days sailing, so that I might have my chance at a kill.

“Young Master Hardie is a man of my own mind, I believe,” said the Captain, loud enough for me to hear. I snapped my eyes back to sea at the mention of my name. “Is that not so, Second Harpooner?”

I slowly turned my head to the two men. Munro’s single eye bored at me, as black and cold as a cannonball. I knew not how to answer without betraying one of the men. In the end, Davison saved me.

“Back to your duties, Hardie,” he said. “We are still hunting.”

On a warm, waveless morning, I mounted the spying-deck and looked out to sea. My heart climbed into my jaws. There, not two leagues from us, was a black shape in the water, bigger than anything but a serpent. I began to raise the hunting cry, but the breath died in my mouth even as it gathered. The shape was not moving. I realised that I was looking at an outcrop of stone.

As my disappointment faded, dread crept into my fingers. We had not moved far since yesterday on account of the calm air, and I well knew there had been no rock in sight. I trod across the swaying deck to the Soundingman and roused him. When he saw the rock, the sneer on his old face melted into fear, and he frantically began to fling his plunging-line over the edge.

“We’re dropping,” said Bannatyne, his voice cracking. Davison spat a curse. Munro looked square at the Soundingman, his features unmoved.

“The Draining is not yet due,” he said, “we have two more nights until St. Phadran’s eve falls.”

“I cannot account for the season, Captain, but I swear by God that the line and the gauge do not lie. We are dropping.”

The Captain turned to the crew, gathered with their caps in hand.

“Turn the ship!” he roared, “Raise sail, and we will make port!”

“To the oars!” said Davison, steering me towards the rowing-benches. “Put that man’s arm to use, lad.”

For days I blistered my fingers as we pushed at the ocean. Fear drove my muscles. Two seasons ago, the King Angus had not returned home before the Draining. With the next Wetness, she had been found adrift, lifted again by the rising ocean, but with her crew either missing or half-eaten on the boat. None knew whether the eating had been done by whatever beasts might patrol the ocean floor or, in their hunger, by the crewmen themselves.

I turned my eyes to heaven and cursed God. We had not stayed out too long; the Draining had come early. Anger joined fear in my heart, and I drove it all into my rowing. Davison joined us, pushing his great oar through the water as easily as a child runs a stick through a puddle. The fear of that hellish seabed was in him, too.

But even with all our strength, we could not beat the changing season. Soon we saw whole ranges of limpet-studded peaks, encrusted with slippery sea-flowers and scuttling beasts, begin to push above the tide. Finally, as the reefs of Ard Manna reared before us, their corals and jagged rock blocking our way, the Captain bade us stop. We brought the Whimbrel to a halt, battening the hatches and fastening all gear to the deck. Then we sat and prayed, aloud now, until the water finally disappeared around us and we felt the ship’s oak timbers crunch and sink into a tilted rest on the sand and rock.

The life of the sea – fish, serpents, crabs, worms and all – had vanished with the water, sucked into whatever realm could contain such a multitude of life. On the ocean floor, we were surrounded by desolation. In all directions stretched the great rolling plain of the seabed, as grey and bare as the sky above, broken only by the dark foothills of the reef before us. The plain was barren, home to nothing but a few bony corals and putrid weeds, little more edible than the sand in which they were rooted. Far overhead we heard the mocking cries of gulls and bonxies, safely beyond the range at which a man might fell one with a crossbow. The crew’s eyes flickered towards the ration box.

We knew not what fate awaited us. The length of the Draining was uncertain. With our provisions, we could perhaps last eighty days marooned on the sea-floor; Munro’s avarice had not seen fit to bring more supplies that that, and we had already cut into our store with a long season of hunting. We could do nothing but wait, hope and ask heaven for forgiveness, and that the Wetness might by some miracle come early. I felt the faint rumbles of hunger begin to gather. The Wetness would return, or we would starve.

The days passed in fear. No man dared set foot outside the ship, into that unknowable wasteland of bleak sand and fog. The crew turned their backs to the Whimbrel’s keel, cowering against the beasts that they imagined without. I remained at my station. In the wind, I heard noises, and I scanned the mist, conjuring up lumbering shapes from every jutting stone and limp pile of kelp. We spoke little; every sound or movement brought pangs from my hungry bones, nights of torrid darkness and days of stinging salt wind. The men prayed, hanging their heads in silence, running their fingers over carved bone-charms.

From the butchering-deck the dead serpents taunted me. They could not fill our bellies – their flesh was poisonous as nightshade, food for machines rather than men. I hated myself for having cursed God; now I cursed my own greed and lust for honour. I had been desperate for Munro to keep sailing outward, keep hunting, even as all the other men desired to return. Perhaps I was responsible for this; perhaps God had seen fit to reward my childish ambition with a fitting punishment.

“Bannatyne,” called Davison, breaking the low silence of a windless day, “how far to port, when the Draining came?”

The Soundingman rose his white-bearded head weakly. It had been forty days, and the old man was on the edge of death already.

“We’re at the edge of the Ard Manna shoal,” mumbled the Soundingman, “and nearly onto the Kelp Flats. Thirty leagues, or three days’ sailing.”

“Or two weeks’ walking for a man with strength in his legs,” said Davison, raising his voice.

There were murmurs amongst the crew. I imagined trudging across the blasted, horrible plain of the sea-floor, with neither shelter nor succour, at the mercy of whatever monster might rear up from a sandflat or coral shoal. Still, our desperation had grown. Such an end might be preferable to a slow starvation on the Whimbrel, in the midst of other desperately hungry men, and whilst we had heard rumours in the wind and mist, no beast had yet attacked us.

As the men’s voices gathered, the Captain spoke.

“No man leaves this ship,” he said, remaining at his station, legs planted firmly on the deck. “I will not abandon the serpents.”

“You brought us on a bad voyage, Munro,” said Davison. “Your hunger would starve us all.”

I had never seen any man raise his voice to the Captain. He had an expression of minor annoyance, as if this rebellion were no more bothersome to him than a dry biscuit or a sharp morning wind.

“If any man leaves this ship, he will have no share in our prize. That is, if the sea-floor doesn’t finish him first,” he said. Then, turning to the men, addressing their rising spirits:

“The Wetness will return. God will not allow me to fail.”

Davison jeered. “I would first put my life in the hands of the sea-floor than in yours. Damn you and damn your prizes.”

I felt my heart twist at this. For a serpent-man to curse the ship’s prize was for a mother to curse her daughter or a shepherd his sheep. It was not right.

“Men!” he shouted, “I am setting out on foot for port. With God’s help, I will make it there in fifteen days, and I will take great delight in the company of any who join me.” His eyes met mine as he said this, and there was the turning of a smile in his mouth.

My feet began to stir. I knew that he was calling to me to come, to tear myself away from the doomed ship. The other men were looking to me, I realised, waiting for me to take the first step; to give them licence to take a chance at saving themselves.

“Hardie,” said the Captain. I froze at the sound of my name. “You will be the First Harpooner of the Whimbrel now, with a First Harpooner’s prize. You are worthy of it.”

I trembled, taut as stretched wire, at this sudden promotion. I made to move off again, but I could not. A First Harpooner should not leave his prizes. The men knew that my loyalty had been conquered. The battle was over.

Davison left his remaining harpoon on the ship. He hoisted a bag over his shoulder and jumped overboard. He looked back at me, his smile gone. My eyes followed him where my feet could not, until he faded into the shimmering fog of the sea-plain.

I began to lose count of the days. As First Harpooner, I was afforded a greater ration: a crumb of dried biscuit and a swig of water. We ate in silence, hearing naught but the foul moaning of the wind across the seabed. The heat grew heavier, only interrupted by harsh winds that came loaded with fine, sharp sand that flayed the skin. When the wind stopped blowing, a stench would settle on us; the briny reek of wet sea-sand, blended with rotting seaweed. Our serpents added their own smell as they began to break down, oily and pungent. Laying on the deck between waking and sleep, I could not escape the staring of their giant glassy eyes. I thought of Davison, walking alone across the sea-plain, perhaps halfway back to port already, or perhaps already a meal for some giant and ravenous crab.

I tried to think of home: the flowing red hair of the girls, the purple blaze of heather in the hills, the rumble of the locomotive through the mountains. It all seemed lost in the greyness of the Draining, where there was nothing but coral and stone bleaching in the sun, gulls circling ever closer overhead.

It was the morning when something cold bit at my face in the darkness. At first, I did not respond. By then, I had little sense of time, and for days I had been in a state half of wakefulness, half of slumber. Yet the feeling was insistent of freshness and moistness on my face. I lifted a hand to it. It was cold. Bodies and voices were stirring across the deck. For minutes, I did not say anything, did not move. It was not just cold, but it was wet. Rain, coming in droplets ever thicker.

“The Wetness,” I said. It was unreal, an impossibility, but others were doing the same, lifting their hands to their eyes in joy.

“The Wetness is here!”

I wept at the miracle; all of us wept, shaken in the joy of knowing that we would not perish amongst the corals and weeds. In that moment of elation, my fears fell away, and I felt nothing but the burning fire of life inside me. Our prayers had been answered, and the Wetness had come early, earlier than I had dared hope. After fifty days on the ocean-floor, we had been granted salvation. The prospect of hunger and slow death, which had stretched to the horizon in front of us, shrank away, and instead we saw only the gentle path home. The only man who stood unmoved was the Captain. In that moment he seemed to me like a savage, ancient god, unmoved by the petty travails of men and awesome in his power. He had been entirely vindicated.

“Lash up the rain-rigging,” he called.

Within an hour, the ground beneath us had disappeared. We rose, the dark peaks of the mountains around us subsiding. We let the sails fly, and cast nets into the water, eager to catch the shoals that would accompany the rising sea. It was only after the smaller reef-spires had begun to disappear that I thought of Davison. Only ten days had passed since his departure from the boat. He had surely not had time enough. He would remain at the sea-bottom, beneath the water. Perhaps it was on him, I thought, that God’s judgement had been visited.

His fate lingered on my mind, but it was tempered by the knowledge that I would live; the thought still seemed so strange and wonderful. Nothing ever tasted so sweet to me as the fresh foam on the air then, nor felt so comforting as the soft roll of the sea beneath us. Within two days sailing I would be on land, with silver in my pockets and hot meat in my mouth.

A shout came up from the forecastle.

“Beast in the water!”

I turned to the other men, unsure of myself, but now they looked to me for orders, as the First Harpooner. The Captain found his words first.

“Hunting stations!” he roared, spittle flying from his lips.

Munro had eaten the same poor rations as us when we were marooned; he had looked death in the eye as we all had. Yet even after that, he did not falter in his instinct to prove himself master of the sea.

I was almost too weak to lift the hunting iron, dragging it to my post at the bow. I had foreseen this moment so many times, imagined myself arching my arm gracefully back against the sails and hurling a mighty shot into an unlucky beast’s flank. I moved my lips in prayer. The chance that I had lusted for was arrived. I would not miss it, even if I flung myself into the water with the force of the shot.

In the distance I saw the serpent, a black line against the calm sea. There was a strangeness to this one. A serpent’s habit was usually to agitate, to dive at the sight of sails, putting distance between herself and men. This one seemed to float calm and still at the surface, as untroubled as an old man in his fishing-skiff.

As we drew closer, I saw a sight that turned my heart over. A tide of doubt, fear and wonder rose inside me.

In the water, there was a man. It was Davison. He was calling out in a small voice, paddling feebly at the sea. The serpent did not trouble him. Instead, it floated just beneath him, occasionally adjusting its position in the water to better spy us through curious red eyes, but always leaving one part of itself beneath Davison’s tired legs. I could not fathom what its purpose might be.

The men threw ropes to him, beckoning and shouting at him to come aboard, but he did not move. I held the harpoon ready.

“I might have cursed you, Davison,” shouted Munro, leaning over the prow, “but I will not let you drown. Come aboard.”

Davison gathered his voice. It was thin against the sea-wind.

“Will you hunt this creature, Hardie?” he asked me. His face was twisted in pain. The serpent looked up at us. Up close and alive, the serpent was different from those that lay slain across our deck. The horned ridges and the barbed swords of its teeth were familiar; but the eyes, that in death were cold red stones, were burning and twitching around the world, looking at the boat, to me, to the gleaming iron in my hand. I could not but wonder how we might seem to it. As the creature bobbed gently below my Master as he struggled at the waves, I could find no other explanation than that it was attempting to keep him alive. Suddenly it was no longer a simple beast of prey, but a creature whose mysteries I had not come close to understanding.

“The beast showed me mercy,” shouted Davison. “When the Wetness came, it lifted me above the water. I will not let you kill it. I owe it mercy,” said Davison.

The Captain grunted.

“So be it. Your fate is your own, Mr. Davison. First Harpooner, cast when ready.”

There was no questioning, nothing but clarity in his black eye, no suggestion of choice. I arched my arm, lifting the spear for a killing throw, winding what energy I had into it. But I could not let go. At that moment, when everything I had wanted was laid before me, I could not but push it away. My heart would not allow me to take it.

“I will not,” I said.

“Then another man will!” roared the Captain. He looked hungrily from man to man. None came forward, nor raised his head.

“Then I will cast the damned shot!”

Munro advanced on me, hand outreached for the iron. My body moved before my mind did. I raised my arm again and threw the harpoon, line and all, into the dark sea. It had been our last. I had left the Whimbrel weaponless.

The Captain surveyed the crew again. No man met another man’s eye, and yet we all knew each other’s thoughts. There was silence, broken only by the low rumbling sound of the serpent’s voice, shivering up through the wooden frame of the hull. The Captain seemed to shrink. In one second, he had held us to his will like captives; in another, he had broken the law that governs men’s hearts, and in that moment, he had lost us.

He took his station, standing at the ship’s stern, arms folded and long dark coat flapping around his ankles. No more commands came from his lips, and his power over us was gone.

We hauled Davison onto the deck. The serpent that had saved him slipped away into the lightless depth. None but God knows why it had shown him such kindness; perhaps even God himself sometimes finds mystery in his design. We sailed into port without much by way of word or deed. No man needed orders to do his duty and take us that far.

I know nothing now of those other men; not the old Soundingman, nor Davison with his arms of oak. I never more set to sea, but through all seasons, I stand on the hill and look out on the ocean; in the Wetness, I watch the serpents toss and tumble, red-eyed and dark in the distance, chased still by bobbing boats. And when the Draining comes, the wind blows in and drags at my ears – sagging now with age. In the sound of it I fancy I hear whispers, in that ancient language in which the laws of the Sea are written. I have long since stopped trying to understand them. It is enough for me to know that there are great mysteries in the hearts of men and the minds of beasts; riddles whose answers will never be solved.

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