Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Charnal Ship

As a storyteller for the evening programs, I take the bare bones of a tale and pad it out into a proper story. Then I present it to the director of evening programs, and he gives feedback, and we work on it until my story is "cleared"--then I'm put into the schedule for evening rotation. I haven't been cleared yet, but I'm working on my story today, and I thought my loyal readers would like to read it. (yes, I recycled an old character, but he's such a good one...)


adapted by NM Lemery

It is true I married somewhat late in life. I had almost given up hope of ever finding a husband, when I met Mr. Clarke. It happened thusly: One day, while I was walking home from church with my six brothers, Mr. Clarke fell in alongside me and struck up a conversation about some land he had recently purchased in Virginia. This continued for many weeks, while he described in detail the school he wished to build, where pupils could work the land in exchange for their tuition. A splendid plan, I thought, and I told him so. He blushed and said—“Elizabeth, you’ve heard all about my plans, but what it’s really lacking is a wife. So what d’you say? Will you come to Virginia with me and make the experiment?”

Well! I tell you, for a man to propose an experiment where a marriage proposal is expected is very bold, but I confess that is the moment when I fell most deeply in love with my Mr. Clarke, and I accepted—both him and his experiment. We were married a month later, in the presence of my six brothers, and there was never a happier woman than I.

When we had been married for a month and some days, Mr. Clarke took his leave of me to sail to Virginia, to begin building his great scholastic experiment, promising to send for me—“as soon as I get a house built to suit you.” He wrote me faithfully nearly every day, and I lived through those letters, reading about the people and climates of Virginia, about the buildings he was constructing. I only wished to be by my husband’s side, to help him build our new lives together. I imagined myself inside these letters, safe in our new house in Virginia, surrounded with the family I so longed for. At last the long-awaited letter arrived: “The house is finished to my satisfaction, Liza, come home to me.”

I booked passage on a ship the very next day. As it happened, a merchant trader, the Windsong, was due west from Portsmouth in a few week’s time. Her captain, Andrew Hollee, was a youngish man, but very well respected by his crew and his business partners. I made the necessary arrangements, and embarked on a blustery day in early March.

If you have never been aboard a ship, you cannot imagine it. Everything is crammed together, folded and stacked to take up the least amount of room possible, for space is at a premium on a ship. The ship itself feels like a live being—the timbers under your feet constantly roll with the waves. The hull and masts creak in the wind, the rigging and sails groan with the strain. The first night I lay in my bunk listening to the sounds thinking I should go mad from them, but after the course of a few days they became familiar and dear to me. The crew was a diverse group of men from all over England, united only in their distrust of me. I had heard that some mariners considered it ill luck to have a woman on board, and so I took it upon myself to lay in a good supply of “trinkets” so that I might “make friends with the natives.” Accordingly I brought along numerous small cakes, and some traveling Bibles, which I distributed with goodwill. I never saw the Bibles again, though, I was assured by Captain Hollee that the crew had taken to reading them most assiduously before they turned in to their hammocks for the evening. After that we got along splendidly.

Yes, the voyage looked to be a rather unremarkable one. We cut through a stormy grey Atlantic, bound westward toward the setting sun day after day. Then one day, about two weeks out, I awoke to notice the air had grown considerably colder. I wrapped myself in my warmest clothes and came on deck. What I saw chilled me even more thoroughly than the wind had—in the night we had approached a field of icebergs. I cannot begin to attempt to describe them. They are so utterly massive, so devoid of life, yet so silent and terrifying, moving through the water without aim or intention, but capable of sinking a ship or crushing her. I wrapped my cloak more tightly around myself as Captain Hollee approached me. He touched his hat. “Mrs. Clarke, I’m afraid that we will be in for a bit of weather tonight—but you must trust me to bring you through safely.” I assured him I did so, but the sight of those icebergs terrified me. The smallest was easily five times the size of the Windsong, and an unexpected breeze could have dashed her upon that ice as if she were running aground upon the hardest rock.

The wind and the waves began to pick up, tossing the Windsong from side to side. The familiar comforting sounds of the ship began to pick up, moving into new territory that froze the blood in my veins. The rigging no longer sang, it screamed under the wind, the sails were like uncontrollable birds that flapped in the wind. The ship’s crew ran to and fro in an orderly fashion, bringing in the sails, tying down the items on deck, and generally preparing for the storm. I thought the worse had hit, but at nightfall—the storm increased.

Now, friends, you may have seen such a storm on land, but to ride through one on a ship, you cannot imagine. The very deck beneath your feet heaves and rolls so that you must cling on to something or you will be tossed overboard, into the churning waves. The waves roll over the deck so that every minute you are convinced you are swamped, only to have the ship rise again. The masts sway like the trees of the forest they once were.

I secured myself in my tiny cabin, falling to my knees and clinging to my bunk, gasping every prayer I had ever learned, seeking to God to save us. I was in mortal terror, thinking about the giant floes of ice that surrounded us, imagining each creak of the ship to be the sound that signaled her imminent destruction. The noise was unbelieveable. The friendly sounds of the ship’s timbers groaned and creaked like a dying creature. The wind pushed through the rigging like a banshee, the shouts of the crew sounded like the desperate cries of haunted souls. I thought I was going mad from the cacophony. Animal cries could be heard upon the wind, mad singing, and then—strangest of all—I heard a baby’s cry rising loud and clear above the din. It was so clear that I found myself rising to my feet, determined to find the source, before I remembered myself. It was only a trick of the wind, but oh how real it seemed…

Sheer exhaustion finally took me to sleep. I awoke to find myself huddled on the floor of my cabin, still dressed in my warmest clothes, clutching my blankets. The ship was still. I flew up to the deck to see what had happened. A sorry sight greeted my eyes—one of the masts had been swept away, and the ship’s crew was engaged in replacing it with a jury-rig, while others were sweeping debris or repairing the canvas on the remaining mast. They all looked exhausted, haunted, as I knew I myself must look. Captain Hollee himself was at the helm, grim and determined. And all around us were the silent icebergs, like sentinels on the side of a Pharoh’s tomb, waiting for their chance to send us to the bottom of the ocean.

Captain Hollee ordered one of the boats lowered, and several of the ship’s crew went into it and began to pull us through the field. It felt like walking through a graveyard. We were surrounded by flat, blue-black water, out of which thrust the white, utterly silent mountains, like the tombs of the long-dead where the names have been eroded away. It was very cold, and very quiet, the quieitude only magnified by the tumult we had gone through the night before. So very cold, and so very quiet. We moved past the silent mountains, hardly daring to breath, as though any noise would bring them down upon us.

Then suddenly, a black trail leading through the white jags, beyond which was the open sea and safety. Cheers greeted this sight, and the men in the boat pulled harder. We moved forward at a snail’s pace, eager to be free of this haunted place, when suddenly--we spied another ship! A ship which had not survived the storm, alas, but was wrecked upon one of the treacherous icebergs. Her masts and rigging were in sad disarray. There was not a soul in sight. Captain Hollee halloe’d them several times, but there was no reply. “I will go aboard,” he said “it is clear they are in need of whatever assistance we can give.”

At that moment I thought of the baby’s cry I had heard the night before—perhaps the wind had carried that cry from a child on board this wrecked ship! “Captain Hollee!” I said “I wish to go with you!” And I quickly explained what I had heard. “If there is a child on board that ship—or another woman—they will be grateful for the presence of another female.” Captain Hollee protested most strongly, but I insisted. I had survived the terrible storm, and I felt alive and invincible and determined.

We made the only noise that day, the oars cutting through the black water, the heavy breathing of the straining mariners. And the occasional halloo from Captain Hollee, which was never returned. When we came alongside that ship, Captain Hollee insisted on going first. He was followed by two of his sailors, and then I was handed up. The deck presented a strange sight—even I, who was only recently indoctrinated into that orderly world of the sea—could see that the deck was in total disarray. It was as if no attempt had been made to put to rights what the storm had torn asunder. Ropes and sails hung where they had fallen, barrels and boxes lay broken upon the deck. And all around us…that eerie silence.

We began to grow uneasy, and a pistol or two appeared. Captain Hollee bade me stay where I was, and advanced towards the captain’s cabin. The other sailors fanned out along the deck, searching for signs of life. The silence was so deafening I wanted to sing to break the tension—and then I heard it again. A baby’s cry. Fainter now than it had been when it first came to me in the storm, but there was no doubt in my mind that it came from belowdecks. I moved towards the hatchway, unobserved by any of the crew, and went down a flight of stairs.

Fainter and fainter that cry grew until it disappeared all together, but not before I could see where it came from. The air was so cold—that poor child, I thought, as I moved down the tiny hallway—to have survived such a storm and now this coldness! Something fearful must have happened to its mother, to leave it in such a dire situation. I pushed open the door to the cabin—a cabin not unlike my own aboard the Windsong--

There was a woman there, lying in a bunk that was not unlike my own aboard the Windsong. She was wearing a white shift and was quite asleep. Lying in the crook of her arm was the baby I had heard, one tiny hand clutching at a strand of her brown hair. Mother and baby were fast asleep, holding onto each other. My heart was softened at the sight of such a sweet image. But it was too cold by far for them in that room. It was clear that they were ill prepared for such cold weather—they must come onto the Windsong, where there would be warm food and blankets for them. I went forward to wake the woman and her exhausted child, to tell them that their delivery was at hand.

But when I touched her hand, I instantly knew something was wrong. It was cold, too cold by far for a living person…and that’s when I noticed the sunken attitude about her cheeks, her closed eyes. And the child as well, no baby ever lay so still in its mother’s arms. They were dead—dead! The baby—the slightest opening of an lid revealed a glitter of an eye, as though the tiny corpse were playing a joke on me and wanted to see my reaction. Dead in each other’s arms, the mother clinging to her baby in death as she must have in life. The brown curl which the baby clutched a cadaver’s curl, no comfort to be found there.

I screamed. I screamed and ran out of the room, back up the hallway. There were more shouts to greet me—the Windsong’s crew had discovered similar bodies in other places among the ship. “The ship’s boy is frozen, standing at the bottom of the stair!” I heard one cry, while another described the ship’s crew frozen in their hammocks, hands still clutching onto the mouldering canvas. We flooded onto the deck in a terror—my heart was pounding my chest worse than it had the night before. We had not stumbled onto a ship in need of rescue, but into a tomb, a frozen tomb, afloat in a frozen world.

Captain Hollee came out of the great cabin, and we quickly got into the boat and away from that horrible charnal ship. I could not stop thinking about what I had seen. The two pale, sunken faces, together in death, haunted my thoughts and my dreams for days and weeks to come. I took to my bunk aboard the ship and remained there for the rest of the voyage, where I would start out of sleep, shaken awake by a baby’s wail.

We reached Boston soon after, and finally Virginia, sweet Virginia, where spring had finally made its appearance, although the warmth of the sun did little to dispel the chill in my bones. On the last day of our trip, I brought the subject up to Captain Hollee, saying, “It is terrifying to think we might have suffered a similar fate, if Providence had not protected us.”

Captain Hollee looked disconcerted for a second, then he said, “Mrs. Clarke, before we left the ship, I took the liberty of taking away the ship’s log. The last entry was made twenty-five years ago!”

Friends, I had not yet made my appearance on this earth twenty-five years ago. And already that ship was afloat on the high seas with its terrible cargo. That woman and her ghastly baby—already dead and frozen, condemned to circle the north Atlantic unceasingly. They are there still. Waiting for someone to set them free—although I hope, friends, if you make a voyage, you will not suffer the sights I have seen. And still see, in my dreams, in my nightmares. I often pray that I will be able to put this disaster behind me…but then a dark night will arrive, a cold night, and a baby’s cry will come to me upon the wind. Then I must get me to bed with a pile of blankets and a bed warmer, and I shake and shake…I cannot get warm. I cannot get warm.


Samantha said...

Gives me the shivers. I love it darling!

Laura said...

oooh Brilliant. Did they give you the detail about the baby or did you add that? I thought the heavy breathing of the mariners was a nice touch because had you said seamen I would have burst out laughing during your performance and spoiled the mood.

Lisa said...

excellent atmosphere!Love it!Well done!!

diane fields said...

I loved it Nicole-you are great with detail and i saw the whole story you were telling. Great job.