About a fortnight after Easter, a young man of perhaps twenty-two with a mane of brown hair and eyes like subdued charcoals burst into The Black Seagull seeking passage to the Sea of Fogs.
Needless to say, all the skippers refused him. The more good natured simply turned their back to him, but others, like skipper Mackenzie of The Northern Lights, became outright furious. It was a harbinger of bad luck to even mention that name, and especially so on a night like that, when the shutters were rattling madly and the sea was howling mercilessly at our doorsteps.
In all the commotion, he never got to ask me.
That he even knew of it, and by name, surprised me highly. It was not even the name of a real sea, but the moniker given to an imaginary triangle of water between Lapland, Spitsbergen, and Iceland, encroaching upon the Barents Sea, the Greenland Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. Those accursed waters had never been marked on any maps and the island at the center of them had been omitted by cartographers for centuries. Even among sailors it was more of a superstition, just another evil thing of the sea–like the Kraken–to be avoided at all costs.
Olaus Magnus had put sea monsters over it in his Carta Marina and he had surely been right.
Hic sunt dracones. Nevertheless, at least one unlucky ship was lost in those fogs each year. I have seen their meager remains on my way to the island.
The youth was lucky that they didn’t kick him out on the spot into the biting storm. He finally settled at a table with a mug of mulled wine and a plate of bread and cheese, and, soon after, the contempt on his face at their unresponsiveness seemed to ease away in favor of a morose resignation. He took out a notebook from inside his coat and began reading and scribbling in it while he ate.
He had dark, melancholic eyes, strange–though I couldn’t pinpoint why, and I could see glimpses of despair in those eyes that somehow matched the howling wind outside the tavern. That stirred my curiosity as much as his odd request.
Twice yearly I travelled those waters, at the beginning and at the end of the short Arctic summer, and–for good reason–I had never taken any passengers on my voyage north.
But, in the end, I took pity on the youth.
I don’t know what came upon me and why I didn’t keep to myself.
Of course, at the time, I needed a spare hand on the deck. I was short on hands since old man Connors and his son had disappeared overboard last summer, never to be seen again. I couldn’t readily hire trustworthy hands who could partake in my business without doing explaining that I wasn’t prepared to do. This boy, though, already had some sort of knowledge about the Sea.
He arrived at the dockyard early in the morning, bundled up in a heavy coat and with no luggage whatsoever. As he moved towards me, a stench of fish and old seaweed hit my nostrils, the foulness of which was almost too much to bear.
Where did you sleep, boy? In some old cargo hold? I wanted to ask him, but good manners wouldn’t allow me.
I held my breath and we shook hands jovially, though I found myself quite repelled again, this time by the clammy, soft feel of his hand within mine.
I took a step back, and when I glanced over his shoulder I realized that he was not alone. A bulky figure, bundled in heavy clothes from head to toe, was approaching us slowly, with the hesitant, careful gait of some old people. It was perhaps an old woman, though I couldn’t really make out her features underneath the heavy shawl wrapping her head.
The woman mumbled something which I took as a “Good morning,” continuing her slow swaying advance towards my ship, while the youth said quickly, “This is Mother, Captain Vermeersch. She needs to come with us, too.”
He pushed into my hand what felt like double the amount of money that we’d agreed upon the night before.
I still had a mind to refuse them; however, I had given the youth my word and couldn’t back down, though I wasn’t happy at all to have the woman, too, as a passenger. I knew that my men weren’t going to like it either, so I rushed the two on board and inside their cabin before my crew could take much notice.
Thus we took to the grey seas.
For the first five days, we kept close to the coast, following the fjords up to Tromsø, with the intention of loading our cargo there, as usual, then turning northwest into the open sea.
I knew the way well.
My family had been delivering supplies to the island in the Sea of Fogs for more than three centuries, though none of us has ever put foot on it. From father to son, we were sworn to allegiance, to doing the bidding of a long gone king atoning for some unknown sin. I didn’t question it. We had our family’s honor, and the money from our high-ranking employer kept coming. My crew was entirely trustworthy; their families, too, had been part of it through the same generations. On the way there and back, we did some fishing and also some trade with the whalers from Spitsbergen and the Norwegian coast–though the pay was quite generous, these extras were just to appease any suspicions from other ships.
My passengers spent most of their time in the cabin. I let them be, wary of having them in my feet. I also thought they might be seasick, but Ule, my first mate, whom I’d sent to them with food twice daily, reported back that the youth was sitting at the table, taking measures with a geometric compass and making notes in a thick, worn notebook, which he snapped shut quickly when he realized he wasn’t alone anymore.
As for his mother, she was sitting on the berth, still bundled up in her shawl so that Ule couldn’t catch a glimpse of her either.
So I let them be.
The sea was calm and we were making good progress. Though no floating ice was in sight, we kept careful watch at all times. Things were as they’d always been; I almost forgot I had two passengers on board.
I was surprised one night then to see my young passenger standing on the poop deck, his head tipped back, unmoving for what I measured to be at least a quarter hour.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered to Ule.
“Looking at the stars,” Ule mumbled, visibly displeased. “One certainly can see a hell of a lot here.”
I shook my head.
“Not for long.”
Indeed, the hours of darkness were getting shorter the farther north we sailed and, then, soon after leaving Tromsø, the night was gone.
We finally turned west towards Bear Island, or Byørnøya in the Norwegian language. Now my passenger was on the deck most of the time, mostly at the bow, alternately watching the horizon and the sea as it was constantly split by the prow of the ship.
“No more stars,” I said to him.
“Oh, I’ve had enough,” he replied with a rueful smile.
We passed Bear Island by midday on April 23rd, the overhanging cliffs of its dark southern tip already teeming with auks. From there, it didn’t take long before we entered the Sea of Fogs.
It always felt to me–to my men also, for they invariably became apprehensive–as if we were crossing a true threshold, not just an imaginary one.
The sea was certainly different there, its color an eerie grey of tarnished silver, strangely immobile for most part. One could barely hear it breaking against the keel. Banks of fog rolled in as if from nowhere, then opened up in unexpected clearings in which we could float for hours. The smells were sharper, or perhaps it was just our sense of smell sharpened to compensate for our impaired sight. The sounds, too, were different, as if borrowing from the crispness of ice, which we could only suspect lurking amidst the fogs.
We slowed down considerably. The visibility was still good, but I didn’t want to risk our safety.
My men became even more anxious to get the job done so that we could return home. In the evening, they always made sure to stay below deck unless on duty, and I understood them well. I didn’t like to watch those waters either. Even if what shimmered in the depths could be nothing more than the reflection of the midnight sun, I still didn’t want to see it.
My passenger, though, seemed to have become more animated. I could see him moving about the deck several times during each never-ending day.
“He’s a Devil’s worshipper, I’m telling you,” Ule whispered to me one evening, looking over his shoulder every two seconds. He moved closer to me though we were alone at the helm. “Twice now he’s come out at midnight and has made a small fire at the stern. What’s he doing? He was talking into the fire and then he threw it overboard. And what he was mumbling was in a language that I didn’t even recognize. But the tone! Sounded to me like an incantation—-”
“You’re seeing things, my friend,” I cut him short. The last thing I wanted was for superstitious nonsense to flourish onboard, but truth was, the young stranger made me uneasy, too.
“Yes, me and Arne, also.” Ule said, beginning to sound cross. “Captain, I swear, when he threw the fire in the water, the sea swirled and something…something came out of it and swallowed the fire. Come with me and I’ll show you the burnt marks on the deck. Do you want him to set your ship on fire? He could be summoning the Kraken upon us, for all I know…”
At that, there was nothing reassuring that I could reply other than urge Ule to reinforce his vigilance.
Two nights later–though one could hardly call them nights with the sun always in the sky–Ule came to my cabin in a state of extreme agitation. His eyes were bursting out of his head and he could barely catch his breath.
“He’s been in the sea,” he blurted out. “God help me, I’ve just witnessed him climbing back on board. All naked. Sliding over the bulwark like some sort of white seal…”
I tried to bring some reason to him, to calm him down, lest his heart fail him, but to no avail. “Come with me,” he said, “and you’ll see!”
I obliged him, my heart heavy at the thought that my friend had lost his mind. It had to have been a trick of the fog, a shadow from a cloud, or the mists of the wine we’d had at dinner; what else? That showed me, though, what a bad idea it had been to bring a stranger aboard.
“Do you see?” Ule said triumphantly, pointing at a big puddle of water on the deck, which had begun to freeze. “Do you believe me now?”
It was utter nonsense, but I nodded to him, not knowing what to believe. Who would go of his own will to swim in those frigid waters? And if he did, how could he climb back on board with no ladder and no rope to lift him back out. But the bulwark was also wet and long wet streaks extended from the puddle onto the deck.
Could something have climbed out of the sea onto my ship? Nonsense.
The next day, when I was doing my rounds on the deck, I found the youth at starboard, leaning perilously over the rail, looking intently down at the waters. The breeze was flapping his long overcoat.
“What are you doing?” I asked calmly, yet quite alarmed inside. I wasn’t going to let him jump overboard and then have one of my men brave these freezing waters for him.
“He is there,” he whispered.
“Who is where?” I said. This way of talking bothered me. My crew was superstitious, like all mariners. Besides, I wasn’t so free of superstition myself. Something other than utter desolation was haunting those waters, I’ve always felt it. And I remembered the stories my grandfather had told me, about things glimpsed in the deep. Unnamable things.
“We’re getting close. The unimaginable, the unnamable… He is waiting… Aren’t you afraid of him?”
I started at his choice of words. He turned to me with glassy eyes that seemed to focus far beyond me. The darkness of those eyes–which I had noticed before but not so acutely as now–appeared even more eerie in the paleness of his face. A greenish, unhealthy pallor marked his skin, under what looked like a sheen of perspiration. Was he seasick, perhaps? I daren’t even ask how his mother was doing.
The breeze was blowing his unruly hair over his face, bringing again to my nose the foul smell of old fish remains. I took note to admonish my men for not cleaning the deck properly after gutting the fish they’d caught.
“Perhaps you should go inside,” I said.
“Do you get dreams?” he asked unexpectedly.
“I rarely sleep.” That was true, especially on this trip.
“Good idea. You know he could reach you in your dreams.”
I didn’t insist. I was beginning to agree with Ule. ‘Insane’ was perhaps a word too small with this young man. A pity.
Again he was looking down as if he could really see something beneath the water’s surface.
“There!” he wailed suddenly, pointing with a shaky finger.
“Where?” I growled.
“Right there, below… One of them…”
He didn’t miss my fright.
Underneath the clear surface of the waters, perhaps three feet down, floating with his face up, his dark eyes watching me fixedly, was old man Connors. No. No. It couldn’t be. I was becoming mad, taking after this mad boy.
That thing, whatever it was, with old man Connors’s face, blinked once then turned over and wiggled his way into the deep.
I let out a hoarse breath.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” the youth said eagerly. “What did you see?”
I shook my head and took another step away from the bulwark.
“Nothing…” I mumbled. “Nothing…”
Old man Connors–whom we’d lost at sea a year before!–down there, that’s what I’d seen, but how could I even admit that?
He knew what I saw.
“Sometimes they don’t die…they don’t eat them. They grant them their immortality. They become like them…”
The next day–and not one moment too soon–we cast anchor at last. We had reached our destination.
My passenger came next to me.
“There it is,” I said.
He started at that, almost violently, but then he must’ve caught a glimpse of the dark mass of land just ahead of us, through the clumps of fog.
“This is as close as I will go,” I said.
“I’m not really here for the island, Captain Vermeersch.”
I looked at him surprised, though not entirely.
“They don’t live there, do they?” he continued.
He let out a short, unpleasant laugh, which quite annoyed me. He wouldn’t let go of his foolish fantasies.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never once seen them in so many years? Why, you saw one yesterday, didn’t you?”
I chose to ignore him and turned instead my attention to supervising the unloading of my cargo.
My men had been busying themselves with the heavy crates for hours, hauling them up on the deck, affixing them onto a small crane then lowering them overboard with the utmost care.
“We’re lowering the crates onto the water, precisely at this location,” I said to him. “There is a current here that will take them to the shore. It’s just luck, I guess, that it doesn’t crash them on the rocks, but it follows the shore nicely. I suppose the islanders then come out to recover them.”
“I see…but have you ever wondered what’s in the crates?”
“It’s not my business to wonder what’s in the crates,” I said sternly. “Supplies, I imagine. Vegetables, flour.”
“So have you never opened one to look inside?”
“They do not belong to me,” I said. His insistence was beginning to bother me so much that I continued. “There is a sickness on the island, or that’s what I’m told. A terrible leprosy. No one’s allowed to leave the island. No one’s allowed to go to it. A member of the Danish royal family has been stranded there and, out of concern for his possible descendants, the King has made sure that they will always be provided for.”
“What if they are all dead?”
“We’d still be doing our duty.”
“I see…” he said, with a small smile that annoyed me further. “Such goes the story…”
Suddenly he turned and grabbed a side of one of the crates that two of my men were carrying, pushing the man next to him aside.
“Let me at least help you,” he said, his voice strained due to the effort. They staggered–more clumsily now–to the bulwark, but just as they were about to hook the crate onto the crane, the youth gave a shrill cry and jumped backwards releasing the handle. My man couldn’t hold it all by himself and the crate fell heavily back on the deck. The impact made its lid jump open, releasing a god-awful smell. Something else spilled out, too: blood and chunks of meat, and not so fresh by the smell of it, wrapped in dirty cloth.
God Almighty! At my sign, my men hurried to fasten the lid back on, clean the deck, and lower the crate overboard.
In the rush, the youth began apologizing so profusely that my nausea at what I thought I’d seen was only deepened by his attitude. Somehow I was almost sure that he’d done it on purpose.
“Who’s paying for all of this?” he asked later, as we were watching the crates slowly float away and disappear in the fog. The men had calmed down, and I was happy that in a short while we would be heading back home.
“King Christian of Denmark,” I replied and there was a hint of self-importance in my voice at the thought of such high a commission.
He seemed to calculate in his head for a moment.
“I thought Frederick VII rules Denmark now.”
I knew I’d already said too much, but the deed was done so I continued.
“He does indeed,” I said. “But my pay comes from King Christian the Third.”
“He’s still atoning for this deed of three centuries ago. Passed it on to his descendants, I see.”
I looked at him without hiding my puzzlement. Who was this young man and why did he keep saying such strange things? How would he know things that even for me were only distant lore, mariner’s tales passed from father to son? About something taken from the sea and about the sea exacting payment in exchange. I didn’t want to know more.
“He caught one of them, didn’t he?” he said after allowing the silence to become too heavy. “In the Øresund…”
“What did he catch?” The taking from the sea had happened in the Øresund. I knew that much. Øresund, the Sound at the Kronborg Castle. The name linked to my family’s destiny for three hundred years. But I couldn’t fathom how much or how much more this young man knew and how he knew it.
“One of them.”
The fog had rolled in unnoticed and now hung in big clumps around us so close that I could barely see past the mast. For a moment I had the nauseating feeling I was alone in a world that had reduced to a few square yards of deck and my strange passenger. I guess his next question didn’t surprise me that much, after all.
“What’s a Flemish skipper like you doing the bidding of the Danish kings?”
I clutched the smooth wood of the rail.
The youth didn’t appear to expect an answer. He continued, but the words he spoke froze my blood in my veins.
“I suppose I have to be grateful to you and to your family for taking care of my people over these years…even though it’s become more difficult to find prisoners and other undesirables of which to dispose in such a way. More difficult to bring the required offerings…
“You see, the one caught in the Øresund was a female. The name of the Captain who caught her was Vermeersch. In 1546, he took her to the court of King Christian of Denmark. He was royally rewarded, of course, for it was a strange animal. So strange that the whole of Europe took an interest to it, including the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was his name, if I remember well. It is said that because of it, the Emperor included King Christian in his alliance with the Scots from 1550. But I cannot be entirely sure of this. Not that I ever cared… The most prominent zoologists described it in their books, most famously perhaps Conrad Gessner in his Accounts of the Animals. They called them ‘sea monks’, since that’s how they appeared to eyes of people so influenced by religion as those men were…”
He opened the notebook he was carrying under his arm and showed me the drawing of a strange animal. It looked vaguely like a human being covered in scales, with arms, though not finishing with hands but fin-like, and some sort of long, torn clothes, and a mouth resembling more that of a fish than of a person. An aberration that sickened me because I could not recognize it, just as it looked familiar to me.
“This is Pierre Belon’s drawing,” he said. “From 1553. Quite accurate for someone who was working solely on hearsay and his own imagination.”
He snapped the notebook shut before I could read the handwritten text next to the drawing.
“King Christian gave the order to bury this abominable creature in the ground, but, in fact, he did not do it. That was just to appease the religiously inclined minds of the time. Seemingly to avoid the offensive talk such a discovery might provoke. Truth is, he took an interest to her. Believe it or not, he took a fancy to her. But he had to hide her. She didn’t die after being taken out of the water. That’s because they are not fish. They can live above water just as well as they can live below. They are amphibious.”
He pushed the mane of dark hair away from his face, revealing a long forehead that made me think of the head of a fish. His skin had the shine and color of a white salamander’s. His eyes had taken unfathomable depths, as if they had become doors into the blackness of an alien sky.
I stiffened my legs. I was surely imagining things, my mind under the influence of his fantastic tale. Madness! Who was this man?
“But she suffered,” he continued. “She suffered very much. News of her fate had somehow reached her kin, far north. Thus, they began taking their revenge on whoever crossed the boundaries of their watery realm. He, the one of whom we’re all afraid. The unnamable… He is here, below, king of the abysmal depths… To keep her, Christian had to appease her people. Offer them sacrifices. Human sacrifices… What they crave most… Human flesh…”
A hammer began drumming inside my chest. I stumbled backwards, too horrified to speak, the crate that had spilled open on the deck suddenly vivid in my mind. No vegetables there… Then I recalled the remains I had encountered during my bi-annual trips to this place. I remembered how I thought that the ships hadn’t been destroyed by the sea. Not by ice and not by a whale. Come to think of it, it had happened every time when I’d been delayed by weather. Every time the sacrifice had been late…
“She is my Mother,” he said.
What? He was hallucinating.
I looked around me to see if any of my men were there to help me against this madman without me having to humiliate myself by calling for help. But we were alone.
“You knew where I was going, didn’t you?” I managed to say after a while, though my voice sounded distant and hollow.
“Of course,” he said. “I have been following your family for some time, but I couldn’t come to you directly.”
Of course, had he come directly to me, I would have refused him, denied everything. I had taken pity on him instead. A fool I’ve been. And now? Were we all in danger? Were they going to take new revenge on us, or were they going to spare us for having returned their long lost one to them?
I thought I knew–yet daren’t think of the other passenger in the cabin.
He seemed to know again what I was trying to ask. How could he be her son?
“We do not die. I am her direct descendant. But the blood was diluted. All my children have died and my children’s children. Had they been able to return here they would have lived, become immortal, too. But we didn’t know how to return. My father, King Christian, has held us hidden from the world. It took me a long time to find out about us, about you…and now it’s time…”
Time for what?
“Who are you?” I whispered.
He looked up. I realized that the fog had greatly dissipated. A good patch of sky was showing.
“From there?” I said, not truly grasping what I was saying. He nodded. From the sky?
Something–a noise–made me turn my head then, and at the stern I saw a silhouette, partly masked by the last veils of fog. I couldn’t tell if it was a human being or an animal standing there on the deck of my ship. Its skin was milky white, its head small with the bit of dark hair that made it resemble a monk, and which was responsible for their name from a long time ago. I shuddered, grateful I couldn’t see more clearly.
In a moment, it dived in the sea and was gone.
“Come with us, Captain,” the youth said, beginning to unbutton his long coat.
I shook my head frantically and averted my eyes, for he’d begun dropping his clothes to the deck. The stench of fish and sea decay grew overpowering.
“Or do you prefer to burden your whole life? The whole of your descendants’ lives? Your ancestor has failed us as much as King Christian has. How long do you want to hide from your penance? You must offer yourself as the last sacrifice.”
I heard a squelching sound, quite like that of whale blubber being dropped on the deck.
“Come now with me,” he said. “Can’t you hear him? He’s calling to us…”
I squeezed my eyes shut, praying for that moment to end. And then I heard the splash. Felt the salted, icy spray on my lips.
I still waited.
Something inside me was pulling at me. Like a hook in my chest. One step and…
The fog had closed in again. Easy to abandon yourself to it, seeking the soft pillow of absolution.
But I wasn’t ready. Not this year.
Cora Pop has a life-long love for spinning stories, mostly from the yarn of the science-fiction and the fantastic. She’s acquired it by reading such masters as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Jean Ray, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others. Her stories have appeared in White Cat Magazine, The Lovecraft eZine, and the steampunk anthology Airships & Automatons. Her collection of strange tales and poems, Wanderings on Darker Shores, is available from Amazon and other online bookstores.
In “real life” she has a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, though she much prefers her imaginary life. She lives in Montreal, Canada, with her husband, their two young daughters, and a shy cat named Blues.Visit her online at http://chickwithaquill.blogspot.com
If you enjoyed this story, let Cora know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Giuseppe Balestra.