Lost At Sea
by Marian Allen
It was noon. It was always noon. And never any wind.
Captain Jed Kellem stood rigidly at the helm, willing a freshness that never came. The Dancing Noose stayed, ever becalmed, on the glassy sea beneath a blazing sun that cast no shadows and gave no warmth, surrounded by the stench of sulfur.
Around him, the crew lounged or prowled, sang or brawled. They played dice or cards. Some, like him, stared to the horizon with gazes as empty as the sea.
Eternity, coupled with a sharp sense of time.
These – and he – were the doubly damned.
Condemned to the roiling, twilit, ever-present afterlife for their crimes against humanity, some lost souls found sparks of light within themselves that were only discernible against the gloom of hell. Some such folk cherished that spark, nursed it, and shared it. For these, hell was a kind of salvation.
Others, like Captain Kellem and his crew, cursed that spark wherever they spied it, tried to snuff it out, and set themselves as far apart from it as they could. And the afterlife, ever-obliging, shifted them from the press of fellow souls to this ship, endlessly becalmed under an unmoving sun.
Occasionally, a man fell, was thrown, or jumped overboard. Sometimes he struggled, sometimes he sank. Nobody cared. There would be another man in place of him in a second. Maybe it was the same man again. It didn’t matter.
Not that the men were identical. With nothing productive to do and no end of perceived passing time to do it, differences were not only apparent, they were magnified. A favorite diversion among some of the men was mocking caricatures of their shipmates. It drew roaring laughter from everyone but the parodied.
One man, Toby, was a favorite for torment. He was larger than most, with fists that had been deadly among the living. His temper was easily touched, and his first impulse was to hit. Any punch he threw connected, and the impact drove his victim onto the deck, against a wall, into the spectators, or over a rail. He also stuttered, and this easily imitated verbal tic was an easy target for imitation.
As endless time went on, and Toby’s roars and heavy blows taught no one respect (or, at least, fear), he struck less often.
The derision increased. He avoided the other crew. He stopped speaking, entirely. New men told to go speak to T-t-toby in a stutter, and they did, to the delight of their instructors.
After he had stopped trying to crush the gadflies, Toby only purpled with rage, glaring and gnashing his teeth. Then he only glowered. Then he only regarded his badgerer with sad, empty eyes.
Captain Kellem couldn’t say why he had chosen focus his numb attention on Toby. Perhaps it was because Toby changed, when so little else did. Perhaps it was because Toby had stopped fighting his fate, and that irritated the captain. Whatever the reason, whether Kellem had the helm or strode among his men, he kept an eye on Toby and an ear out of the exaggerated stutter of the particularly base stupidity that never tired of ridicule.
The time came – and who could say whether it was days or decades or centuries after Toby’s arrival – when Captain Kellem heard one stutter too many.
He rounded on the crewman who dodged around the hulking Toby, who turned this way and that in an attempt to avoid him.
“T-t-toby! D-d-don’t be rrr-rrrude. Sssss-sa-say ss-sss-something. Huh-huh-hello!”
“That’s enough,” said the captain.
The smaller man gaped at him. The captain never interfered. “Wha’?”
“I said that’s enough. I’m sick of this so-called joke. Find something else to amuse yourself, and leave the man alone.”
The crewman cast glances at his audience, leering with a promise that the fun would resume when the captain was out of earshot, and withdrew.
Captain Kellem had intended to brush Toby’s harasser aside and move on, but Toby dared to grasp his wrist and hold him in place.
So softly, the captain wouldn’t have heard it if he hadn’t looked up at the big man’s scarred face, Toby said, “Th-th-thankee, c-c-cap’n.”
The two men looked into one another’s eyes and each saw something they had never seen before, in life or afterlife: humanity.
A new captain stood at the helm of The Dancing Noose, and no one remembered that Captain Kellem and Toby had ever existed on that becalmed ship under that sun that never rose or set.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: Black Flag, sleeplessness, sunlight, Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge