The Sailor’s Voyage
by Fanni Sütő
The slime of forgetting and decay ate away at the old wooden deck. During his long life the Sailor had seen a good number of things, ugly and pretty alike, but this was something that made even his much experienced stomach turn. The board sighed under his weatherworn boots and the foul breath of the sea made his head swim. For the hundredth time, he wished he hadn’t to come. But he had to. That poor soul had been praying to him so fervently that it was impossible to shut it out; it was like an endless shouting in his ear.
The Sailor couldn’t get away from it, and by heavens he tried.
He had sunk into the delirium of good harbour ale, yet he could hear the constant creaking in his ear. He had escaped to the best brothel of sailor town where the girls moaned sweetly while caressing every inch of his body, yet deep in his mind he still heard his most faithful believer shriek with terror.
The Sailor’s last hope was the open ocean. On days when his heart was in turmoil or his head felt dizzy from the comings and goings of the mortal world, he would go to a bay and raise his rusty lantern. It was a plain, old thing, its glass cobwebbed with cracks. The metal had shed all the black paint. The light inside though, that was something special.
It danced and swirled with the brightness of the Pole Star. Once you looked at it, your eyes never wanted to break away. When you looked into those flames, all the secrets of the world seemed available. Your heart found peace.
Then you heard your son’s voice calling to you and you felt his small hand pulling onto your coat because night air was cold and he got tired of walking on the quay. You turned your eyes for only a moment and when you looked back the lonely figure had already disappeared into the fog.
Some people whispered that the mysterious light was actually the soul of a will-o’-wisp trapped between bewitched glass panes. Others said it was nothing more but the reverie of drunkards and warehouse workers. But you know the truth.
The Sailor went out to the docklands in the deepest night and called to his faithful ship. First there was nothing but silence. After a little while waves crashed on the stones of the quay. The wind stirred with magic. A weatherworn but majestic ship emerged from the distance. The Sailor walked to the end of the peer and the ship hurried to meet her master. The wind sizzled with electricity, and the ship trembled with excitement like a young dog that greats its owner at the end of a long and lonely day. The Sailor smiled and patted the wooden body of his faithful companion.
“Oh Charon, Charon my old friend,” the Sailor said smiling, “where would I be without you? Stir me away from the hustle of the harbour, I thirst after the peace of lonely seas. I’m tired of all the noise, the smell of dead fish and much-loved women and flea-ridden beds. I want to lie with the stars and return to my kingdom.”
The mast groaned in agreement and a plank descended to greet the Sailor. There was no crew to greet him. There was no need for it, since the old ship knew the ways of the sea better than the oldest and most experienced sailors. She was a friend of great whales and followed the songs of the merpeople. She was happy when her master called to her, the endless waiting in the far away water making her wary. It was long even for a ship, and also very lonely.
Only the children of the sea played with her and only the bravest seagulls would nest among her sails. But the Sailor was a good lord and on this particular day he even brought a little surprise with him. He had a covered cage in one hand and when he drew away the piece of cloth and opened the cage door a quick, small monkey darted up the plank.
The Sailor freed him from the clutches of street acrobats who had been keeping the poor animal in horrible circumstances. When he looked into the monkey’s eyes he knew it craved freedom with the same intensity as he did. On a whim, the Sailor decided to buy it from the conmen. They first protested loudly and didn’t shut up until the Sailor produced a heavy bag of gold. He was, of course, very much aware that the ragged monkey wasn’t worth a penny, but he enjoyed feeding the men’s greed.
The Sailor was a great actor and played the role of the gullible young man so perfectly that the acrobats couldn’t believe their luck. The Sailor smiled when he thought of their surprise in the evening, when they counted their coins which turned into fat white maggots in their hands. Bastards. They should have known better than to mess with the lord of the Seas.
He smiled to himself and stroked the monkey’s head; in turn the animal affectionately bit his finger.
“Now let us return to my ancient kingdom,” declared the Sailor, so Charon set sail and they flew through the thick night fog.
Nobody knew where the lands of the Sailor lay; he never took anybody there, not his lovers, not even his sister. His was the territory of eternal silence. No human voice ever harrowed its waters; there was peace and quiet and death.
“I’ll rest at last,” the Sailor sighed as he poured himself a glass of strong Caribbean rum. He lay in his hammock, looking up at the sky and amusing himself with imagining figures around the pegs of the stars. He thought of the old days when his naive children hadn’t known anything about constellations. They needed the guiding light of celestial bodies badly because they’d been sailing without any help, feeling around in the dark like a blind man. The Sailor took the form of a wise man then and taught humanity the art of the stars and navigation. He hung images on the spots of stars so that the limited mind of humans could remember the coordinates better. He was the only one who truly understood that those were just arbitrary pictures he’d made up. The sky could take on as many shapes and forms as a good actress.
That night the stars spoke to him. Maybe it was just the spirit of the rum, but the shiny spots in the sky became a dark sea and a ruined ship. The ship was in such a horrible shape that Charon creaked with contempt. A dead bird haunted the scene, a white albatross. And there again, the Sailor’s moaning subject appeared, the lonely seaman. He’d been stranded in a sea which wasn’t of this world and the spirits of his dead comrades were closing on him. In his horror he made a horrible pact, he begged for his life and now was regretting the consequences.
The Sailor shook his head. He was aware of the numerous weaknesses of humans, but the one that bothered him the most was the way they clung to life. People would kill to stay alive, they would sell their family, their homeland, their souls. And all for what, a few years spent in misery.
The Sailor knew the burdens of immortality, the potholes of a long road which would never end. Sometimes he envied his subjects because they had hope. The hope that all suffering would end one day and all their sins and differences would be washed away by the great ocean of death. He’d never know that peace.
He felt that one day the few of his remaining believers would forget about him. And even then, he wouldn’t be able to die. He would become a lost soul roaming the earth, dragging the chain of forgottenness behind him. He knew that time was drawing closer and one day he’d become like that lost mariner, alone in the middle of a hostile sea. Nobody would remember him. Nobody would come to help him.
He shook his head and poured himself another glass of rum. His sister had a wise saying: you should only think about crossing the ford when you are there. There was no point in saddening himself with thoughts of the future. It wasn’t there yet. He might have a few good decades still, maybe even some centuries. He’d love many women, see many countries and eat many delicious dishes before he finally needed to sail away into oblivion.
He hoped there was a dumping ground for forgotten supernatural beings. He once spoke to a one-eyed Scandinavian man who told him about Valhalla, a heavenly hall of mead and music. The Sailor thought then that he wouldn’t mind visiting there, even if just for a while; he wasn’t the type who could stay in the same place for too long. Sometimes a little rest was good though, moments when he could walk on the steady ground without feeling the heartbeat of water under his feet and when he could eat bread which never had worms hiding under its crust.
The lost man shrieked at him from the stars and his voice throbbed behind the Sailor’s temples, so he slammed his goblet on the table, the drops of rum flying in every direction. He made up his mind: he would save the lonely mariner. He got up with a sigh and walked to the steering wheel.
“We are going to the Uncharted Seas,” he announced. He could feel that Charon wasn’t happy about the idea. He wasn’t either, but he felt ready to do what needed to be done.
He was immortal and the lord of seas to that, he had no reason to be afraid. Yet he was.
The wind turned colder and harsher; it blew ice spikes into the Sailor’s face and he had to find his seal skin coat to protect himself from the bites of winter air.
He regretted his decision a thousand times, but he was a man who believed in the binding power of an oath. If he said that he’d sail the Uncharted Sea, then that’s what he would do. In any case, he couldn’t have a normal life with that mariner shrieking at him day and night. The screeching grew louder and louder, it was in the howling of the Northern wind, it was in the violent attack of the waves. The Sailor knew he was getting closer.
He just prayed to the gods gods pray to that he wouldn’t meet the lord and lady of these seas. He sensed their hands in the misery of that lonely mariner. He was barging into their kingdom, to mess around with their business. Poking your nose into the dealings of others wasn’t a very wise thing to do, even in the circles of gods and other supernatural beings.
His blood started freezing in his veins. Charon had to wriggle her way through thick ice sheets and they stabbed into her ribs. The Sailor promised her a treatment by the best carpenter in town when they got back. If they got back, he thought to himself, but he kept his worries to himself.
He scanned the water with his spyglass and almost cried out in relief when he finally found the lonely ship stranded in the middle of the icy water.
The slime of forgetting and decay ate away at the old wooden deck. During his long life the Sailor had seen a good number of things, ugly and pretty alike, but this was something that made even his much experienced stomach turn. The board sighed under his weatherworn boots and the foul breath of the sea made his head swim.
The deck seemed empty, but from the corner of his eye, the Sailor could see bodies writhing on the floor. He thought of turning back again, but then he promised himself a long night with Rosemary and Clover and the sweetest rum and he pushed on.
He found the mariner crouching on the floor, hugging the white skeleton of a bird as if it was a doll.
“I’ve come to your rescue,” the Sailor said.
The mariner who had been calling to him so eagerly until now, didn’t seem very impressed. He slowly turned his head to look at the newcomer. His eyes were white and filmy and the Sailor wasn’t sure if he could see him at all.
“You’ve been praying to me, I am the Lord of the Seas,” the Sailor articulated slowly and loudly to make sure that his feeble subject understood him. “I have come to take you away from here, to your final rest. You’ll be able to sleep in peace.”
At last something stirred in the Mariner and he stood up. His movements were slow and ridged, like clockwork rewound after long years of rusting. He took a step closer and the Sailor couldn’t help backing away. The Mariner was alive, but he exhaled the same slow decay as the other parts of the ship.
“I don’t want to die,” he croaked.
“You aren’t alive,” the Sailor said. He had to remind himself of the warmth of the fireplace in his favourite brothel and the heavenly taste of turkey to keep him from running back to his ship.
“I don’t want to die,” the figure repeated.
The Sailor shook his head. Humans, they were so difficult sometimes.
“What do you want then?”
“Home,” the figure said and hugged the bird skeleton even more tightly.
“Of course,” The Sailor snorted. “Anything else for you? Don’t you want your mommy maybe?”
“Dead,” the mariner said plainly.
“Alright, alright. I’ll take you home, just let’s get out of here as soon as possible. This is a godless place. Where is home?” the Sailor asked. He almost fell over a half-rotten chair.
“Why did I even ask? The dumping ground of everything wicked and rotten. Let us go swiftly.”
The Mariner took some insecure steps towards him, but the Sailor had to realise they were never going to get anywhere if he didn’t help him.
“What a man would not do for his inner peace,” he grumbled and took the ancient man’s arm. He pulled him towards his ship and was almost across the plank when he saw a woman sitting on the side of his deck. Her face was as white as chalk, in stark contrast with her blood red lips. The Sailor swallowed. He’d desperately hoped to avoid this meeting.
“Now, now, young man,” the woman said, pulling her lips into a wide smile, “are the new gods are trespassing on the territory of the Old Two? It’s the first time you visit since you exiled us to this wasteland.”
“Ehm. It’s not like that,” mumbled the Sailor. The always so confident Lord of Sea was reduced to a mumbling little boy. “I’m really sorry, I have come to rescue this poor wretch.”
“You didn’t change at all. You were always like that, you had to poke your sweet little nose into everything. Still no manners, though. Come and give a kiss to your mother?”
The Sailor sighed.
“What did you do these poor people? And why?” The Sailor asked and tried to edge his way on his ship. His mother jumped elegantly on the plank in front of him.
“Now now. One of my children finally comes to visit and he is in such a hurry! You could at least pretend that you’re pleased to see me. I hoped you might turn up and tell me what happened in the world since you tucked us away here. Is that what humans are doing too? Getting rid of their old parents so that they don’t have to look at them as they are aging and fading? So that they don’t have to talk to them?”
“But Mother, you’re not aging. You’re as young as ever.” Her face was as perfect and emotionless as a china doll. She wore a flawing, blood-red evening gown.
“Always the flatterer, but that won’t buy your way out of this.”
The Sailor sighed again. He felt like back in his childhood when his mother let him believe that he’d get away with it, but in the last moment she appeared and spoiled everything.
“I’ll let you go if you have tea with me,” his mother said.”
“How is father doing?” The Sailor asked fidgeting uncomfortably. He made the lonely mariner sit in a corner of the deck and placed the circus monkey on his lap to keep an eye on him.
“Nice of you to ask,” said the Lady and spooned some sugar into her tea. “He went out to patrol the seas to see if there is any unfortunate soul trespassing on our waters.”
“And how are you and your lot doing?”
“I don’t really know, I’ve been alone for a while now.”
“You’ve always been a loner. I watch you in the mirror of the sea. Your influence is slowly fading. It won’t take long and you’ll share the fate of your old parents.”
“But as they say, what comes around, goes around, dear. You can take the ancient mariner,” she said gesturing towards the figure who stared blankly at the horizon. “That’s his name. Not lonely mariner or whatever you keep calling him in your mind. But,” she said lifting a long finger, “you also have to take his gang.”
“What, the dead, rotting people?”
“Yes, my sugar. I’ve got bored of them, just creeping and crawling all day long. Not very entertaining. Also quite smelly.”
“What on earth should I do with them?”
“Well, you can ship them off to your sister’s land. Let them be reaped.” The Lady said. Her smile was as sweet as a sip of arsenic.
“What, do you think I’m a water taxi service?”
“I think you’re the prodigious son who doesn’t have the decency to visit his parents. Don’t you fear, don’t you fret. The day will come when the world throws you out of its graces and then we’re going to be merciful. We’ll take you in and share with you the deathlands where you exiled us.
“Mother, why do you always have to make me feel so guilty? I’m just a pawn in the greater order of things.”
“A pawn could still stand up for his parents.”
She clapped and the table and the tea set disappeared.
“Off you go now. I don’t have the whole day to reminiscence. Hurry and get me rid of these massy boys before your father comes home.”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then she dissolved into fine mist.
“I hate when she does this,” the Sailor grumbled. “She kept doing it when I was a little boy and I could never know when she was watching and peeping into my deepest secrets.”
“That’s the point,” said a bodiless voice behind his back then the rest was silence.
The Sailor herded the dying people on his ship and willed the waves underneath to take them as quickly as possible. Still, minutes seemed to be crawling with an excruciating slowness. The Sailor poured himself a big glass of rum and closed the door of his cabin with utmost care. He even piled some of his treasure chests to secure it from unwanted visitors. He wasn’t taking any chances with the hoard of half rotten bodies which were presently creeping around on his ship.
After what seemed like an eternity, his sister’s land appeared on the horizon. Warm sunshine poured in his window, and the air filled with the smell of grains and summer. They arrived at last! Gratitude washed over him. To his biggest surprise, he found a handful of young men enjoying the sun.
“Good day, gentlemen!” The Sailor greeted them. “Nice to meet you on this wonderful day, but could you tell me how did you get on my vessel?”
They laughed at him, their voices happy, but hollow. Even the circus monkey was giggling at him.
“You brought us here, good mister,” one of the men said. “The sunshine of your sister’s land restored us to our long forgotten youth. And if you pardon us we should make haste. Her song is calling to us. Reaping has started and she always needs more hands. We cannot let the Lady Eliza down.”
The Sailor looked up and saw his sister standing on the ledge. This season always made her look younger. The furrows on her face disappeared and her hair rested on her shoulder in a corn-blonde plait.
She raised her hand to greet him and he returned the gesture. The lads hopped to the shore and waved goodbye to the Sailor. He turned to go back to his cabin to see to his unfinished business with that rum bottle when he bumped into the mariner.
“Oi, what are you still doing here? All your comrades have left for Eliza’s eternal fields, why haven’t you joined them?”
“Don’t want to die,” he whispered. The Sailor almost banged his head in the mast because he was fed up with the wandering undead who not only didn’t have the decency to die in peace but who also bossed him around. Oh, how drunk would he get when it’s over!
“So, London, is it?”
“London,” the mariner groaned and sat down to watch the waters.
“Charon, you’ve heard the gentleman.” The Sailor said, caressing the weather beaten wood of his ship.