Letters from a Shipwreck
in the Sea of Suns and Moons
Raymond Holland, 2015
Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, the Etruscans believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for as they attribute all to deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.
-- Seneca The Younger : Naturales Quaestiones.
Letter from Clarence St. Elmo, sailor aboard Unicorn, April 12th, 188?
My dearest K.
Three nights ago your voice called me awake. I rose and followed you through the hot dark, stepping quiet past crewmen drowsing restless in bunk and hammock. They snored, they muttered, they snarled at me in dreams. The ladder beyond shone tangled in a moonbeam. I climbed up from the ship's dark belly to stand on deck blinking sleepily, puzzled not to see you. The deck rocked gently, a stage built on flat empty sea. Only our moon kept watch.
You once told me you dreamed of befriending a kitten, adventuring with it upon your shoulder. When you awoke you searched blankets and pillows desperate for the friend left behind in the dream country. You almost didn’t forgive my laugh. Well, my turn to forgive and yours to laugh, because ten thousand miles out to sea I searched under old canvases and behind barrels, frantically calling your name.
Eventually I stood still and listened. I heard the weary thump of rope against timber, beams creaking as the ship rocked unquiet in the windless, waveless sea. I walked to the hatch of the forward hold. We had nailed it shut when the whispering began. Now the hatch was open again. I decided you had gone this way to test if I would dare to follow. As if I wouldn't! I climbed down at once. The lantern was out. It never stayed lit in the forward cargo hold. I could feel eyes in the dark considering me. I could hear the whispering. If I had not been searching for you, I wouldn't have dared go there at night, not to fill my pockets with emeralds.
But the moonlight followed behind like a friend holding a silvery lamp. I stared at the boxes. The whispering came no louder here than up on deck. It just came deeper. Like the rest of the crew, I wondered if people were in the crates. I went towards one larger than the others, and darker. Its binding ropes had been cut, now dangled loose. The top tilted back, not closed proper.
After the sea becalmed and the Captain died most of us had come down here on our own to find where the whispering came from, and if there was any food. I had done it, in daylight of course, and like everyone else I turned right around to rabbit the hell out. I didn't think many of the remaining crew had nerve enough to open one of the boxes. If they had, they hadn't bragged about it, nor shared what they found.
I stared at the crate wondering if the First Mate had opened it before he threw himself overboard. I didn't want to see what made a man toss himself like a coin into the water for luck. But I felt drawn. It was that same feeling you get in some high place, to throw yourself out into the air with your arms spread like the wings of a gull.
So I stood there, my hand reaching for the lid, but hesitating. Then a ray of the following moon twisted to shine on a different crate; a tall one standing on end by the far wall. I moved towards it instead, glad somehow of the change. I put my ear to the rough wood. I heard the faint drum-beat of my own pulse, and the sigh of my own breath. Nothing else. I took out my clasp-knife and cut the binding ropes. Then I opened the lid as you would open a door to a stranger, wondering who knocks so late at night. I still hoped that it might be you, smiling at me in welcome, arms held out like that night at the lake. Of course it wasn’t. Before me, outlined in the opened crate, standing taller than me, standing much more firm than me, was a man. He had the head of a bird. He turned it sideways to consider me with one moon-bright eye.
He told me to flee the ship at once, for the storm was coming.
Transcript #1: Interview with Captain Clarence St. Elmo, resident of The Old Sailor's Safe Harbor Home
Interviewer: How did you become shipwrecked?
I was a deck hand on Unicorn, a three-masted schooner that sailed regular between the China Seas and California. Well, that was my billet. Truth is I lied. I knew as much about being a sailor as I did about being King of England. Less, even, ‘cause I’ve read enough plays to know the words for kinging it. I wager I could make a satisfactory monarch a week before anyone demanded my credentials. But back then I had to guess when was my port and why was my starboard.
Not that most of the hands knew more than I. Proper to a ship named Unicorn, we were an entire crew of virgins to the sea. We had a preacher whose congregation packed him off with a prophecy, and a cut-throat from New York who had been a policeman. A gypsy cook who pretended to speak no English so he could ignore our complaints. I claimed I was a whaler from Boston trying my luck in the western seas, and a proper crew would have caught me out for a failed poet in an hour. But not those fellows.
But how were you shipwrecked?
We became suspicious soon as Unicorn left San Francisco. Except for the Captain, the First mate and the ship’s cat, Unicorn had not a soul who’d sailed on her last voyage. What became of the previous crew? Had they jumped ship, died of fever, been eaten by cannibals? It was worrisome. And there were strange markings in the crew hold, as though words had been carved in the timbers and then hacked away again. Like maybe someone left a message, and someone else had scratched it out. That was also worrisome.
And so how were you shipwrecked?
Two weeks out from San Francisco we were becalmed. The ship just sat there in a bored dusty ocean. We cleaned, we mended sail, talked idiot tricks of whistling up winds, rowing someplace with a breeze if we could lighten the ship. That made us wonder just what our cargo was. What was in the hold? Not one of us had helped with loading before we sailed. The Second Mate said it was just boxes. What was in the boxes? By then we were all hearing a whispering sound come up from the hold. We asked the Captain. He said it was no concern of ours. But after that he and the First Mate started keeping guard at night, in turns by the forward cargo hatch.
The third night something happened to the First Mate. We woke to a scream, a splash. The cargo hatch was open. Some ran to the railing, yelling 'man overboard' and playing about with ropes. I poked my head down into the hatch. It was a whole cargo of darkness imported from warehouses on the docks of Stygia, which is my poetic way of saying it was damned dark. The lantern lay busted on the floor. The bit of wick still glowed like a red eye. I could tell there were people down there staring up at me. Don't ask how I could tell. I just could, so clear I jumped back like I'd poked my head in a bear's den.
We figured the First Mate had thrown himself overboard. We called over the railings and swept a lantern on a rope low over the water, but we didn’t see anything. There was no wind, no real waves. If the First Mate decided to go for a swim, he’d decided not to come up. The Captain just looked angry and ordered us back to quarters. Later I figured out what really happened, but by then the ship was sinking.
Describe the shipwreck.
After the Captain shot himself we drifted, trying to sail east. There wasn’t much wind, but a current tugged us somewhere, like the sea had a special purpose for us on the far side of nowhere. You leaned over the railing and tossed a bit of trash into the water, and watched it head off like it had its own journey to mind. It was puzzling. Was the ship moving, or was it standing still while the rest of the globe went past? But I think we mostly drifted south. No one was in charge.
Describe the whispering.
The whispering began before the Captain died. I think it did. No one noticed when it started. We just realized it had been going on, maybe for hours, maybe for days. The Gypsy Cook claimed he heard it soon as he boarded ship, and it just took us a while to catch on. Maybe. But Cook was a man inclined to give himself mystical airs. He had a way of nodding at everything like he understood just what was going on, and would reveal the Truth when he though we were ready. But he was a proper member of the fool's crew like the rest of us.
The whispering was a kind of sound below decks that came up through the wood. Like a wind, almost, but there was no wind. It was a crowd of voices talking soft, too far away to catch words. Mostly we pretended we didn't hear it. That made it easier. But then it made you wonder what else everyone saw and heard and pretended not to.
How did the Captain die?
After we gave the Captain’s remains to the sea, the second mate broke into captain's quarters. The door was locked, which surprised us because practically the last thing we saw the Captain do was come bursting out that door, blazing blue fire and waving a pistol. He sure didn’t take time to lock anything behind him. I’m guessing the First Mate did it later to keep us out.
You said the First Mate was dead.
No, I said the First Mate disappeared with a scream and a splash in the night. You make the same mistake we did. We heard a splash, counted a man missing, and assumed he went into the drink.
Describe the Captain's cabin.
It was locked, which was puzzling. The Captain was dead and we took the First Mate for dead. There was no one left with any rank but the Second Mate. He announced he was Captain now. We just shrugged. We called him Captain Grocer, as he was some kind of shop-keeper who’d said ‘hell take it’ one day and headed off to be a sailor. That was the whole crew, pretty much. Men who just up and quit what they knew, throwing aside their hammer or pen or store-clerk apron to go looking for a ship fool enough to take them. Welcome to the good ship Unicorn.
Our New York Cut-Throat picked opened the lock. He was a tall fellow with wild eyes on either side of his head like a horse that’s decided to do something crazy. He had a horse’s face too. He was a talented man. He could fight and tell jokes and open locks. He could play the fiddle like a gypsy. Better, I guess, because the Cook was a Gypsy and he couldn’t fiddle worth a tinker’s dam. We had a tinker, too, now that I think on it but I don’t recall if Tinker could play the fiddle or not.
Describe the cabin of the Captain from the inside.
The New York Cut-Throat picked the lock for our new Captain. But when he saw what was inside, Captain Grocer declined to reside therein.
I took a look. We all did. It was the same as taking a tour through the skull of a lunatic. The quarters were foul with trash and litter and madness. There was a window but the glass had been painted over black. Entirely painted over black. It looked like dried blood but it was just ship's tar. We all touched it, leaving our fingerprints. We couldn't believe it.
It stank. Empty bottles everywhere, rotten food everywhere. There were rats, but they seemed sickly, like they'd eaten poison. With the door open they just blinked at us, didn't try to run. Bones of something like a dog lay on the table. We didn't touch them, but we gathered round and stared. The teeth and claws were all wrong for a dog. They curved.
It was a pest hole. Bottles rolled loose on the floor. The rats blinked. The bones stank. Unicorn had been captained by a mad man; and that wasn't a comforting thought when you considered that he'd brought us to the middle of the ocean and left us there. We took some things out and closed it up.
How did the Captain die?
We weren’t sure if he killed himself or something did it for him. Well, until the First Mate was chasing me around the deck with an axe. That settled the question, in my opinion. I took the ship's log from the cabin, as well as a few other items. There was no one to tell me no, and no one else cared. I wanted to see if the log said what was in the cargo hold, and what happened to the last crew, and how far we were from Singapore.
Me, our Cut-Throat and the Gypsy Cook went through the log it but it made no sense. Some pages were missing. Other times it was in a cypher that looked like bird tracks. And when it was English the words were so crazy it might as well have stayed bird tracks. One thing was clear, though. The First Mate started as a passenger on Unicorn. His name was Banker and it was his cargo we were hauling now.
Describe the death of the Captain.
After a week of no wind, little water and less rations everyone began worrying about food. Our new Captain Grocer joked about drawing lots to see who’d be dinner, but we could see he was testing out the idea. If it ever came down to cannibalism we’d have skipped the lottery and just hit him on the head and dug in. Everyone started carrying a knife or belaying pin or something, eyeing each other like tigers in a cage.
It was hard to sleep. The whispering came through the deck and the walls and got into our heads. The forward cargo hatch kept being opened, although none of us wanted to go down there. That's where the whispering came from. The Gypsy Cook hammered it closed, me helping. But in the morning it was always open again. When we spotted land we were barely on our feet, and everyone looked half-mad. Me as well, no doubt.
Describe the land you spotted.
Captain Grocer camped out by the wheel and kept telling us to take up sail and lower sail and turn sail, but we couldn't get any closer to the land. It was just a purple line on the horizon. Some of us thought it was clouds, but if you looked through the captain's glass you could see trees and a mountain and birds even, circling. We all had a look. Some of us just saw clouds. Whatever it was it moved away as fast as we sailed towards it. Someone said there was a current pushing us off and the best thing would be to turn and sail to the side. But then we would lose sight of the island and we were pretty damned lost.
But mostly we figured Captain Grocer didn't know sailing from skating on the moon. After a while we ignored him. He kept turning the wheel this way and that, like a child spinning a wagon-wheel around and shouting out orders to an imaginary ship. Welcome to the good ship Unicorn.
Describe the forward cargo hatch.
I was hungry. I took the lantern from crew's quarters and decided to check out the cargo hold. If there were people down there then they must have food of some kind. I wasn't the only one to figure that. We all did it. But we did it on our own. I wager no ship ever sailed with men so uninterested in acting together. One man would go down there and stay about one minute, and then come back up not looking at anyone, not saying anything. And we didn't ask. Sooner or later we all climbed down the hatch, stood in that dark then turned right around again. There was something uncanny in the hold. Maybe lots of 'things'. The whispering sounded like a big meeting in a cave far away.
The first time I climbed down I stood by the ladder and looked about, just shaking. There were big boxes everywhere, not properly stowed to keep from sliding when rough weather came. Even I knew that much. Some were set on end, others were stacked atop each other. A few were opened, with the lids put back hurriedly. I couldn't get myself to look inside any of them. I just climbed right out again. I decided that starving wasn't so bad as going near those boxes again.
How do you know K?
We have letters you wrote her.
Hah. Well, K's my girl. I write to her sometimes. I guess she's the reason I went to sea. Maybe I'll tell you about her sometime.
I came from the richest family in town, but no one had much of an opinion of me. I wrote poetry, and to the good town fathers that meant I was a useless half-wit. Whereas to the good town mothers a fellow wrote poetry in order to seduce their daughters while sipping wine from skulls. Which was an interesting idea, I grant you. Truthfully, my career as town poet and village idiot was spent sitting quiet in my father's house, books stacked around my chair like the walls of a ruined castle. I had some other favorite places to read. By the river, and in the town park, and the choir balcony of the old church when there wasn't any service going on. K's father was the Reverend. She would come up and sit with me there sometime, and we'd talk books and poetry.
Describe the sinking of Unicorn.
The night the ship sank I had a dream that my K was calling me to wake. I rose, but of course I didn't find her. I went on deck. Everyone was asleep, even the watch. I went to the forward cargo hatch. It was thrown back open again. I peered inside. The whispering flew out like bats from a cave, all slithery and tangled and too fast to catch the words. The moonlight led me in, somehow. It was a friendly kind of moonlight, and it was a dream of K that woke me, so I figured I would go in again and this time I would see where the whispering came from.
Describe the Bird-headed man.
He was just a statue. That’s what all the crates and boxes held. Statues.
You said he spoke.
No. I said he told me something.
Describe how the Bird-headed man spoke.
Well, his beak didn't move, I don't think. It didn't really need to. It was like the statue was just standing in place of something bigger. Something so big it was in the box and in my head and across the ocean all at the same time. I wouldn't have been able to see him at all without the statue to look at.
How did the Captain die?
The Captain stayed in his cabin after the First Mate disappeared. He wouldn't come out, but we could hear him in there shouting, growling, breaking things. We talked about choosing a new captain and sailing back to California or else on to Singapore. But there was no wind, just that dead flat sea. And by then all of us understood that not a man in the crew was a proper sailor. The Second Mate was just a grocer. Not a one of us was suited to captain a rowboat, an' maybe that was why we were hired on.
Describe the death of the Captain.
In the middle of the day when we all sat in the heat, staring at the sky or staring at the sea or staring at the deck or staring at oblivion, the Captain bursts out of his cabin with a pistol. He's set himself on fire. I think by pouring brandy on his oilskin coat. It burned blue and dripped gouts of hell. He runs yelling to the forward hatch and climbs down the ladder and is gone. We just blink. The bright sun and the flat sea and the thirst and the whispering from below has made us all slow and stupid. Each one of us looks at the others wondering if anyone else saw what happened, though there is still a trail of blue fire leading to the hatch. When we hear the gun shot we jump like we'd been asleep.
We peered down the hatch. There he was lying at the bottom of the ladder still wrapped in blue flame. He stared up at us. Well, his eyes stared up. He had a bullet hole to the side of his head. The logical conclusion was that he'd chosen to blow his addled brains out. I went and got a bucket of sea water before the fire could spread; but by the time I returned it was out. That made it dark down there again and you could only sort of half see him staring up.
Describe how the ship smelled.
When the wind blows you smell sea and sky, salt and spray, mixed with what the wind crosses to reach you. Polished wood, wet wood, wood with a touch of dry rot. The cook's fire or a chamber pot, a pile of fish guts or tobacco smoke from a sailor's pipe. And tar. There is something about the smell of tar that has special permission to go upwind, and it mixes with the salt tang of the sea. I like that smell best.
But when the ship sits windless on the flat water it's like sharing a coffin with a corpse. The sea stinks. The deck stinks. Everything stinks, including you. Especially you. A fellow has to take small quick breaths going into crew's quarters, till he can stand it. Till he can stand himself.
Well, I am Clarence St. Elmo, for a name. I’m a talker. When I get going I can talk faster than a squirrel swearing at a cat. I climb like a squirrel, too. I can race up and down all the ropes of the ship easy as take the stairs. I took to being a rigger quick as if I'd been made for the job.
I like to get into Unicorn's crow’s nest and watch the sea, and picture K seeing me up there. That sort of daydream usually ends with a pirate attack and me rescuing her in a big fight and then making her reverend father walk the plank. And then each of her reverend aunts. Splash, splosh, old biddies overboard!
Describe yourself again.
The lighthouse has mirrors across the landward side of the lantern room to brighten the light sent to sea. I stand before the glass and spy a medium sized man. Young, and skinny as a scarecrow starved for straw. There's a long thin face, a long thin nose and long thin blond hair that wanders up into the air around his head like a failed halo. He has green eyes that stare big and shiny with permanently resident fever. This fellow vibrates like a wine glass atop a piano during a loud performance. He wears canvas pants and a salt-white seaman's shirt. He has a burn across one arm going from the tips of his fingers to his elbow. That’s me.
How were you shipwrecked?
Who are you?
How were you shipwrecked?
Who am I talking to? I don't exactly recall.
We are the interviewing team. For a story. You are a resident of the Old Sailor's Safe Harbor Home.
Why don't I see you?
You are blind. You are old, well over a hundred years old.
No. I am not. I'm waving to myself in the mirrors this very moment. I am young. Through the lighthouse window I see the beach far below. I hear the waves. I can run all day racing the gulls in the sea wind. I am strong. Blazes, I can roll a barrel of lamp oil up the spiral stairs to the top of the light house without a rest. A lot of men bigger and older than me can't do that.
That is your memory and imagination.
Well how do I know you aren't my memory and imagination?
Tell us about the Captain's cabin.
Or I could be imagining my memory. Or just remembering what I imagined. Who's to say I'm not a young man hearing voices? Listen to the sea by night; it carries voices from beyond the grave and before the world. You sound like just another wind shouting in the distance, faint and untrustworthy.
No. You are an old man in a wheel chair. I shout so you hear my questions. I repeat them. It is annoying the head nurse and the other residents.
Describe the head nurse.
Does she have petticoats that rustle as she strides? Is she a frowner or a smiler? Describe the floor her heels click against. Is it cold chill stone or fresh-mopped wood that catches the sun through the window? What do you smell? Are flowers wilting forgotten in a cheap glass vase in a corner?
There is nothing to smell.
If you are in a house full of old sailors you should smell plenty. You should smell pee and sweat and old man's skin, wafting with the dust that settles on clothes folded away years ago to be unwrapped only for the one last funeral. You should smell all the soaps and flowers and polishes meant to mask the slow vapor of the flesh rusting and rotting to the tick of the clock.
Reset. What happened when the Captain died?
Our New York Cut-Throat was the easiest of us with the idea of going down the ladder into the forward hold and fooling with the captain's body. I guess as a policeman he had experience in that sort of thing. He tied a rope and we hauled the corpse up and wrapped it in a spare sail. It was Cut-Throat who noticed how the Captain's gun hadn't been fired. We didn’t want to hear about it, though. We just wanted to sail that ship someplace near enough to dirt to get the hell off it. We nailed the hatch shut again.
One of the first things I noticed when I came on board was that the ship seemed to have been chewed here and there. I don't mean it was unsound. But there were places in the timbers where something had dug or cut, maybe with a knife. Particularly in the crew quarters. If you looked close you could see that the chopping was done to cross out something else cut in the wood. We didn't talk about it, but sooner or later we all figured the same thing. The previous crew had left messages for us. Warnings, we thought. But someone else had erased the messages. No doubt it was the Captain and First Mate Banker.
Describe the markings.
I think sometimes it was letters, but I couldn't read 'em. Other times it was pictures. There were some right above my hammock in a flat space in the ceiling. I used to lie there looking up trying to figure what had been put there. I imagined some crewman who'd had my hammock before me, had left a message there just for me. It made me mad that someone else had come and scratched it out.
I'd lie there staring up at it, trying to see the meaning past the gouges. One night when the light was just right I saw it. Under the slashes someone had carved a face.
Describe the face.
A lot like yours.
You can't see my face.
Well I couldn't really see that face either so I'm going to call it a close resemblance. You could be brothers.
Do you know your own face? It is scars and wrinkles slashing the original picture. Your eyes are white marbles, the pearled eyes of a drowned man.
Maybe, maybe. I'll take that as it comes. But I see who I am this side of things.
You are just an old blind sailor sitting in a wheel-chair in the Old Sailor's Safe Harbor Home.
I am young. I am strong. I am Clarence St. Elmo, for a name. And beyond a name I know exactly who I am.
I am the Keeper of Shipwreck Light in the Sea of Suns and Moons.