Among the tossing waves off Port-au-Prince, the marauding vessel slumbered in the dusky calm. Few men littered the moon-washed decks, most slept soundly below. The sea had been smooth all day, but had begun to turn rough and choppy.
Alone, the Captain lay awake listening for the tappings, the scratchings, and the scrapings which had disrupted his nights and haunted his mind for nearly a fortnight. Initially dismissing the disturbances as noisy rodents beneath, he had come to realize that the sounds came from without, the terrible clawing accompanied by the occasional splash and lurch of the great ship.
Rising silently from his bed, the Captain slipped from his cabin and made his way to the quarterdeck, taking care not to rouse the few drowsy sailors left lingering above. So slowly he almost thought himself to be dreaming, the Captain approached the railing, though hesitant to behold whatever sight awaited him on the other side.
He had come to anticipate this nightly occurrence; only thirteen nights before, he had been confused and shaken when awakened to what seemed to him to be the sound of some great taloned creature, desperately trying to scrape its way through the ship’s massive hull. Unable to believe or comprehend what he was hearing, the Captain had only lay awake and listened long into the night; until he could finally take it no more. Rising, he had quickly made his way to the quarterdeck, where he peered over the side and into the black tide. Whatever had been there, had anything been there at all, was gone, disappeared into the inky depths. The Captain imagined he saw the smooth marble of a woman’s naked back arching as she dove, a spray of sapphire tresses trailing behind her. Though he rubbed his tired eyes and doubted his sight, he couldn’t banish the sudden feeling that the vision was related to the dead ship they had just that day plundered, and the Quartermaster’s eerie warning of unforgiving sea-ghouls who stalked defilers of the depths.
They had come across the ship in open water, bobbing merrily along at the wind’s discretion. The complete lack of deckhands in such fair weather had alerted the Captain to the possibility that the innocent Mary Bobbin was perhaps in some kind of distress, and therefore vulnerable to a sudden violent raid. A quick scouting team revealed that the Mary Bobbin’s entire crew, including the captain’s wife and infant child, were dead within their cabins. The Captain was greatly pleased by this news, knowing that his men would have no interference as they loaded their own ship with the valuables of its ghostly twin. The Quartermaster, superstitious as always, declared the malarial dead to be an omen of danger, and refused to offer a hand in the looting of the cursed ship.
Aboard the Bobbin, great deals of goods were recovered: blankets, medicines, small amounts of jewelry. Citrus. And in the cargo hold, large amounts of rum and powder.
Fearing the ship itself was tainted by its cargo of rotten flesh, the crew, spearheaded by the Quartermaster, voted against the Captain’s desire to dump the unfortunate dead into the murky ocean and commandeer the Bobbin. Pleased with their plunder, and cautious of the Quartermaster’s growing popularity with the crew; the Captain allowed the matter to rest, and ordered a torch set to the unfortunate ship.
As they watched their phantom sister vanish into the ethereal morning mist, the Captain and his crew soon found themselves deluged with a torrential tropical storm. Appearing out of seemingly nowhere, the storm gave the crew members barely enough time to reach their stations before they were struggling to bring the ship through in one piece.
It wasn’t until much later, after the storm had passed, that the Captain came across the Quartermaster spreading his superstitious nonsense among the younger, more gullible crewmen. He spoke of the ancient sailors’ legend of a vengeful water-spirit, an ocean nymph who prowled the seas, protecting those in her favor, and punishing those she deemed wicked. Many a masthead bore her image, and the Quartermaster was quick to point out that her sacred symbol had been carved over the doorways and portholes of the desecrated phantom ship. Like many born into the sects that worshipped the mermaid, the Quartermaster had been branded with her sacred symbol, supposedly placing him under the sea-beast’s protection. The rest of the crew, he warned, would not share her favor if she were to punish their sacking of a ship dedicated to her honor.
Raging, the Captain had quickly broken up this clique, and told the Quartermaster in biting tones that henceforth, his superstitious tales were to be kept to himself. He had no use for nonsense aboard his ship. He had then ordered that the ship set its course for Port-au-Prince, where they could tend to the damage taken in the storm, as well as sell some of the goods they had acquired on their latest excursion. He had hoped that at port, his crew would get some rest and real food, and re-board the ship with clear and rational minds. And, yet…
Thirteen nights later, a mere day’s voyage from their projected safe harbor, and the Captain feared it was his own mind that had been warped and befuddled by the Quartermaster’s faerie tales. For thirteen nights, he had suffered through the sleeplessness of scratching and clawing, and for twelve of those nights he had only dared to peek out as dawn’s rosy glow had smiled upon his fears, but the thirteenth night was different. The Captain did not wait for the safety of the dawn; he had appeared on the quarterdeck while the sky was still jet and twinkling with stars. He heard the frantic clawing at the hull.
Slowly he approached, with more trepidation than was becoming of a merciless pirate. Peering over the side, the Captain finally laid eyes on the spectre which had haunted him so those past nights.
The Creature was positioned about halfway between the water line and the rail at which the Captain stood, steadily scaling the side of the ship, using the talon-like claws protruding from its webbed hands to slowly reach, find purchase in the yielding wood, and pull itself another foot or so upwards. Its naked body had the bloated, rubbery appearance of waterlogged flesh, until just below the Creature’s navel, where the flesh appeared to melt into jewel-like scales which flowed down into the ocean, forming a long, serpentine tail.
The Captain took a single step back, but was there frozen by his terror. The sea-beast the Quartermaster had warned them of was real! And, what’s more, it had come to claim vengeance for the dishonor he had paid to its sacred vessel.
The mermaid reached the top, pulling its upper torso onto the rail; its long, obscene appendage trailing behind it, disappearing into the murky waters below. Its shiny head lolled uncertainly on its thin, bluish shoulders, its eyes blind and milky, rolling in its skull. Bubbles gurgled from its gaping jaws, black puddles forming instantly on the deck beneath it. Moaning eagerly, the Creature reached out to him with one long, lean arm, its opposite hand talon-deep in the rail, holding itself in place. In horror, the Captain finally mustered his voice to scream out for help, as the webbed talons sought purchase in his panicked breast, the full moon wholly illuminating the Creature’s wildly salivating face.
* * *
The Captain made his final rounds of the ship before declaring her ready to go back to sea. The crew’s stay in Port-au-Prince had been a good choice. Not only had they been able to make the necessary repairs to the ship; the crew had also had the chance to relax and unwind a bit, and get over the worst of their shock over the disappearance of their former captain. To be lost at sea was an occupational hazard, but to disappear in the night, while the sea was relatively calm and still? The Captain knew that his men were worried, and moreover, they were frightened.
“We know now to respect the spirits of the sea, and that respect will guarantee our safe passage,” he had declared to his crew before they boarded the newly re-christened Ocean Queen. He was more than confident in the continued safety of his men, provided they followed his instruction and respected the ancient lore.
Once aboard, the Captain took his station, gazing off into the aquamarine distance as the crew prepared the ship to set sail. He absentmindedly rubbed his thumb over the sacred split-tail tattoo on his inner arm, the one he’d been given for protection as a child under what some would call a “superstitious” custom. The ship set out confidently into the foggy morning as the dawn turned the sky to blood.