Image by cbenjasuwan courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“So, you want to know a story,” the Captain said.
A flicker flashed across his eyes, lightening quick.
“No, not that one, no. And yet, perhaps – “
He wiped a bead of sweat from the arch of his brow with a pained expression, as the candle flames all around him began to flicker in some rogue breeze; the whisper of a tempest from the open cabin window.
“Go on then, tell us it!” Matthew said, his hands clasping his cap between his knees, his back bent, leaning in as if the Captain’s words were like the warmth of a fireside to him. But the Captain rose, and in the dim I saw how Matthew’s face slumped down in bitter disappointment. We both thought the moment had passed, but then the Captain spoke.
The wind blew again and a weight of expectation fell upon the cabin already so wreathed in anticipation; impregnated with the smell of the salt water, and of men sweating in the dark.
“If I tell you-” he began.
“Yes, if I tell you, don’t ever forget.”
The silence grew around his words the very second he ended them. A rough wave slapped the side of the ship and sent the Captain’s dog slinking away under the bed. Even now when I think of him, the Captain, I hear those words he said.
“Don’t ever forget.”
We looked on at him through that hunkering darkness, through the gloom of monotony brought on by all the days we had spent pent up together on that vast, labyrinthine ocean.
“Did you ever know a fear–“he began again, Matthew tried to speak then, eager to join in but the Captain hushed him with a hand.
“No, wait Matthew wait, don’t interrupt, yes I know you boys have felt it, the fear of death, I have. We’ve all known that terror. Of starvation, of a desperate thirst, the thought of ambush, and of drowning, and of mutiny, and of the knife in the back, but did you ever know a fear that didn’t end in death…that made you wish for it?”
I saw Matthew open his mouth, again the Captain silenced him. He looked right through him. Even in the twilight of the candles you could tell what sort of a look that was. His silence made the Captain smile and half the teeth in his head were glinting, and the skin around his mouth grew taught like he was only wearing that face, like it was just a piece of hide that he used for a mask.
“No,” he said, quietly.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand that terror, no.”
Then he sat back, and he sighed, and for the first time I saw it: the misery. It was positively leaking out of him. He was smiling again, and yet the sadness was all I could see of him.
“When I was your age Arthur, I met that terror,” he said. “I had met with terrors of a similar kind before, but the real monster, that I met later. I wasn’t young but I wasn’t old either. I was hovering in life.” He stopped and his words sunk into us. One of the candles flickered and died and somewhere under the bed I heard that poor dog let out a whimper.
“I can’t describe the monster to you now, because it would make no sense. You couldn’t imagine it as it truly was, you wouldn’t imagine it right at all.” He turned his face away from us, he sat back lower in his chair and seemed to disappear into the darkness.
“No. Let me tell you how it made me feel.”
“The first time I saw it I did not think it so terrible. I was bold enough to go right up to it, almost to put my hand out to touch the thing, but I didn’t. Maybe in some part of me then I knew that it was a monstrous thing, that the nearer I got to it the worse things would go for me. But maybe that is too easy to claim after events have passed. It was a long time ago now, in the marketplace, in Algiers, and I didn’t know then what I was looking at. “
“Yes, strange things,” Matthew said, half to himself.
“I’d forgotten you knew of it, that you had been there, Matthew.”
The boy sighed. “There were no monsters when I was there, only men, but they were beast-like enough.”
“Of course,” the Captain sighed, “you would say that.”
He turned then, to me and asked, “were you ever in Algiers, Arthur?”
“Yes. Yes I was once.”
“And what thought you of it?”
His eyes were burning, perhaps it was just the candle light, but it seemed there was fire in his eyes all at once.
“I thought it to be like many other places. It was too hot, and there were too many people. The marketplace when I was there was chaos Sir. Absolute chaos.”
The Captain laughed but it was a convulsion, there was no joy in it.
“You speak so finely Arthur, you must forgive me. I do like to hear you talk lad, it amuses me to hear you.” His chuckling continued for a while, like the aftershock of an earthquake.
“When I was there, all those many years ago, there was a trader, his name I forget, but he was an imported Westerner, that I remember. A Dutchman. Had lost his way on a ship somewhere. Had signed up on some grand adventure that had brought him low in a foreign land. He was a sleek fellow with sunken eyes like two cursed saphires buried deep inside his head. In spite of his eyes, I never saw an uglier specimen of a man, and I have seen the foulest, wickedest things this Earth holds.”
Matthew laughed, a loud, cruel laugh and it made me shudder.
“Laugh, yes go on, laugh! But he was the shrewdest man I ever knew. I mistrusted him at first, because he was so ugly and so sleekit. But later, I came to see and hear a lot of him, and it made me know him, and in spite of the devious nature of his trade, I saw how promising his intellect was, and how wasted. What a filthy little prophet he was. He sat there in the middle of that square on his dirty rug, with dust in his old beard an his dirty feet curled up under him, flies beating round his head like acolytes. We came to talking he and I, and haggling over the price of some goods or other. He spoke English in a lyrical, faltering way, and I was impressed with that to begin with. I asked him where he had picked up the language, but all he would mention was a name. “Hatterdale.” He would repeat, “Master Hatterdale” as if it were a mantra. I wondered who this man might be, perhaps some relic from the bombardment of 1816, who can say. But that was when he took to me to see the monster, and I forgot all about his Messr. Hatterdale.
“I thought you said this beast was in the marketplace?” Matthew asked.
“I did see it in the marketplace, I saw it there first, or rather I glimpsed it. I grabbed that little prophet by his scrawny neck and I said, ‘see there, what is that?’ and he got very excited and told me –for a modest fee of course– that I might see it if I wanted. I did want to, and so he took me. We followed that beast down the alleys and by-ways, we hunted after it. I was desperate to know of it then. It was so strange to me. I wondered how no one else was as intrigued as I to know the nature of this beast. I never thought then that to them, it was an everyday thing. They were numb to it now. I could never become blind to such a thing. I was entrapped by it, and it would haunt me night and day without end. I wish now that I had never seen it. No. That is a lie. But it’s taken a part of me now, and I’ll never get it back, and so it has me.”
Matthew lent forward, “which part?” he asked.
“Idiot,” the Captain said, and he shook his head, tossing his grey-black curls in a rage because Matthew didn’t understand.
We were quiet again for a time. I almost thought the Captain had fallen asleep. The ship rocked us to and fro like a hand on a cradle; the waves beating like birds’ wings against the ship’s sides in the dark. The dog came out again from its hiding place and scurried amongst us all. To the Captain it came last, and he roused himself, and he gave it a pat on the head.
“Good lad,” he said, but the Captain was staring into darkness. I saw his eyes flash again as old memories must have been working their way to the surface of his mind.
“Sometimes I shudder all over when I think about what I’ve seen. In darkened souks, in dirty hovels at the ends of the earth. You know, I remember when I was a boy and my uncle would stop in our room late in the evening, and he would lean on the doorframe, drunk out of his mind, but he would speak to us like a prophet. He was a sailor too you see, and he knew more than you or I will ever know. He was a great man my uncle, but he was a hideous drunk when he came to port. My mother dreaded him coming and our father hated him with such a passion, but come to see us he did from time to time, and such things he brought with him! A little mahogany box, inlaid with mother of pearl so as it shone like a rainbow. It smelt like sandalwood, rich and sweet. I used to keep stones in it, and shells. But he told us stories too, about the things that lived in foreign lands under scorched earth and in caves deep, deep in the ocean. I never forgot them.”
I was now straining to see the Captain through the gloom. The glow of the candles was a poor light to sit in. They were nearly burnt down to the nub, but it was the Captain’s words which compelled me. I felt that as he talked, I was falling down into a vast well and that I might never crawl out, but still I listened.
“The first time I visited the beast I was shaking all over,” he continued. “I was so young, and I didn’t know the true meaning of courage. But that was how I came to know it. Not through rough seas or harsh words or beatings, or fray. I learnt how to be a man just by looking at that thing. I wanted to touch it, I wanted to know it was really real but I didn’t dare. The filthy prophet took my money from me, and he shook his head in amazement at me every time I came because I wasn’t as bold as the others, I never touched the beast. I knew that the second I did, it would destroy every last part of me. So I waited, and waited, and waited.”
He hung his head a moment as if a thought had struck him, “I never touched it, yet it destroyed me all the same.”
He laughed. The sound of his laughter in that cabin was so mournful and sweet that it made my blood run cold. It was a laugh you had to earn through trial.
“What did it look like?”
The Captain roused himself as if from a dream. His eyes were like black marbles shinning in the dark. I noticed then that the Captain’s arms never reached out for anyone, but his eyes did, perpetually. They cried out of his head, trapped in his scarred face like jewels in a panel of stone.
“Oh, Arthur,” he said, and he turned away.
The dog was softly snoring, I heard its wheezing breath rise and fall. Matthew was slumped over too, but he slept as if he were dead and so I had forgotten him. Nothing mattered but the words of the Captain, flowing out into the room like a river.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Never. I could live a thousand lives and see a thousand wonders, terrors, everyday ordinary things too, and yet I’ll never forget its face. Ah the sound it made as it moved! Its way of speaking to me, yes it spoke! Does that surprise you?” He looked over to me, and I nodded, I knew he was not expecting an answer and so he rolled on.
“I’ll never forget the sound of its voice.”
As he said it, a strangeness came into his own, a strangling of the throat, a convulsive emotion gripped him so that I was compelled to look away, though I doubt he could see my face in the dark. I was not in the light of the remaining candles as he was.
He said, “I came to see the thing as often as I could. I know that others came too, that they came as frequently as that little man would let them. I knew that in some part of his heart it caused him pain to be the warden of such a thing, and to be its guardian and custodian and nothing else. But still he took their money and I waited outside until it was my turn. Yes, I waited at the wretched mouth of its den like the great, clay lump of a man that I was, and yet I cannot deny it was worth the waiting. I waited until the last, until all the others had gone and dawn was about to break over the market. Then the prophet would call me forward and there it was, lurking in the lanterns and the shadows. And it seems to me now that I only ever saw the beast through endless reflections and refractions, like light through a prism. That it had a thousand faces, and that it spoke in a thousand voices, and that it had a thousand hands that could reach out and grasp at me; could reach right through me. It broke through my heart, through my soul, through everything that I was.”
His voice wavered again, he sighed. He slapped his hands downs on his thighs, and the motion blew the remaining candles out but one. For a moment, the sudden descent of darkness made me wonder who the man was who was sitting in front of me, and if I knew him at all. He seemed about as far away from me then as any one human being could be from another.
“You want to know what it is I saw in that place don’t you,” he said.
He seemed to hover for a moment in uncertainty, I feared he was almost at the end of his energy. He said:
“Maybe one day, you’ll meet it too. I hope that it will take a different form for you than it did for me, Arthur.”
“I am in no hurry to return to Algiers, sir, I assure you.”
“Algiers!” he laughed. “Algiers!” he mocked kindly.
“No, you may not meet it there, that beast is gone. I tried to barter with the little man, I offered him all the gold I had, that I would return to him with all the gold in the world, but he would not take it. “
“For the beast,” he said.
“Arthur, have you ever seen a monster? Do you know what one looks like? Have you heard one speak, or say your name? No of course you haven’t. You would know if you had. The monsters you’ve seen are in storybooks, or they are tales told by old men like me, who’ve spent their lives cooped up in holes in the ground or buckets in the water like this one. You could see a dog with ten heads, or a child with no eyes, or a man eat his own brother and you would think that it was monstrous, but you might never know a monster until you felt one awaken, right here.” He clutched at his ragged shirt with a giant’s fist.
“Love,” he said, in answer to the question I had not yet asked. The silence swept in to swallow us up until we were nothing at all. I thought I heard Matthew stir, once, but if he had been listening after all he gave no more indication.
The Captain spoke in a whisper so ragged that I had to strain to hear it.
“A hollow woman,” he said. “a hollow woman, for a hollow man.”
The lone candle died and total darkness fell upon us.
“Love is the most monstrous thing of all,” he said, and the ship creaked, heaved like the serpent of Midgard turning in its sleep.
“It has made me a hybrid of myself. A missing part. A heart swallowed up by a beast. I have had other women, and for far, far longer than she, but I can never be whole again, without her. She was myself.”
His voice was his like his ghost speaking. Tears fell in quick silver torrents from the Captain’s eyes. Even in the dark they glinted, washing over his face like a veil.