The sea seemed to erode my senses. I held my face over various spices, preserved meats, brick-like biscuits. Salt. It was always salt. The sea invaded my core and my daily smell testing of the provisions held no sign of being free from its maw. I placed the foodstuffs back into their holding cells and the ship shifted.
A pressure bore down on me. The walls were forced in. The boards bowed inward with the screech of a cart on rails trying to halt its progress. Before it became too much to bear, it ended with a crack as something spiked into my cheek. I stood there shaken, looking at the walls of the storeroom that held firm, steady as ever. I felt up toward my face. A wood splinter stood perpendicular to my cheek, slightly embedded in the flesh, like a flag propped up claiming this cheek as its own. I drew out the splinter, its tip dabbed in crimson. It had turned into a writing quill. One edge of the quill was finished, as was the interior of the food stores. The other was pocked, with nearly uniform little craters marked into the wood. I glanced about to look where it may have come from and could not quite spot it in the somewhat dim lighting. I pulled myself away from the disconcerting feeling and focused back on the ship shifting direction.
I made way for the deck and the navigation room to consult my charts and ensure we were still on course. I breached the lower decks and for the first time since the dreaded journey began, a scent of something other than salt met my nose. Decay. Almost the entire crew was hunched over the edge of the ship, peering into the waters. Dead gulls crowded the murky sea surrounding our ship as they slowly slipped away in the wake. This new stench was almost a welcome respite. The crew members stared, wide-eyed, mouths slightly agape. One of the fresh faced lads that had been fishing for a meal off the side of the ship jogged over, the dead gull in his hand held by the neck, undulating and flopping with every step.
“Looky here lads, caught m’self a gull! First time I ev—”
“Gods damn ye boy! Throw that blasted thing back in the drink! Ye’ll put a curse on this ship!” the First Mate yelled out, nearly hoarse in exasperation.
“But I just…” he began and trailed off as he looked over to most of the crew staring daggers into him. “Yes, of course sir,” he mumbled out, looking slightly shaken. He moved toward the edge of the ship as crew members moved back, as if repelled, not daring to get near the man who may have cursed their vessel. He dropped his rod, pulled back his arm, and with all his might threw the dead gull out to sea. It splashed into the water, far out from the ring of gulls that encompassed the ships base.
“Sir, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. It caught on me hook and thought I’d show the men for a bit of a jape is all.”
“Boy, ye may have just doomed us, messin’ with the spirits o’ the sea. Yer either too wet behind the ears to understand or too daft to have given it a thought at all.” The First Mate’s voice turned from hoarse to gravelly and embedded me with an ominous notion even as a bystander. The First Mate stared him down as the Boy’s eyes flitted from crew member to crew member.
“Surely a ship here before us dumped some sour foodstuffs overboard and the gulls couldn’t stomach it better than you or I,” the stalwart voice of the Captain resounded from behind the crew. “Throw away your worries men, the only dangers in these waters is not doing your damned job properly!” he proclaimed, clearly annoyed to find all of his men huddled by the side of the ship, standing about.
“Ye heard the Captain,” the First Mate quickly followed up, straightening himself. “Now go and swab the deck and try to get some of the death ye brought on board off o’ this ship,” he grimaced toward the Boy.
With the demand, the Boy’s eyes locked back onto the First Mate and he managed out a “Yessir,” before grabbing his rod and jogging off.
The First Mate looked back toward the rest of the crew, “and that goes for the rest of ye too! Stop lollygaggin’ about and back to work men!”
As the crew slogged back to their positions the Captain moved alongside myself as he looked out to the sea. “I’ll be needing you Mr. Navigator, as well. I felt a shift in the currents, we need to make sure we’re still on course.”
“Yes sir, I was just on my way due to that shift but was held up by the morbid display about the near waters.”
“No more talk of that out here. To your charts and instruments, make haste, Mr. Navigator.” the Captain looked sternly toward myself.
I nodded with an “Of course sir,” and moved toward the navigation room, making my way inside. I took out my chart of the area and began to work out our position. My calculations came through and I couldn’t quite believe it. I began to make the calculations a second time when the Captain entered and sat in the chair across the table from me.
“Mr. Navigator, I must warn you to not play into these notions of superstition. Us sea folk can go downright mad worrying of such things. The best way to deal with it is to quell and discredit any and all superstitious worries, lest the crew begin to panic and commit any number of foolish acts.”
“Ah, yes sir, of course. I have never been one of the superstitious mindset. I like to place my faith in instruments and numbers. I must say however, that witnessing so many people reacting in such a way stirred up a slight bit of doubt in that regard. But of course you can trust me not to play into any of that folly.”
“Yes, well, you best remember it. How are the charts looking?”
“Yes, the charts…” I mumbled as I looked back down. “Sir, I’ve just completed the calculations a second time and that shift must have been quite monumental. We are currently sitting almost ninety degrees off of our trajectory.”
“What?” the Captain asked quite shocked. “Surely I would have noticed such an extreme change as that. The shift earlier couldn’t have been more than ten degrees, no fifteen at most. Run your measurements again!”
I ran the calculations a third time and came to the same conclusion, “Sir the ship has shifted some eighty-six degrees to the port side since the last I checked an hour ago. That shift must have been more than either of us had noticed, or it may have been something else.”
The Captain clicked his tongue, staring at the chart. “I’ll go and make the adjustments then. For the time being Mr. Navigator, double up on checking for course corrections. We can’t be wasting time going in the wrong direction with a crew that can’t wait to wash off this ‘curse’ in the dirt back on land.” With that the Captain rose and left. I soon felt the movement of the ship as he readjusted our course.
I looked out to the sea at the nearly setting sun to the starboard side of the ship and absentmindedly placed my hand in my jacket pocket, poking my finger on something. I pulled out the object and stared at it. The blood dry on the tip and the smooth side of the quill in drastic contrast with the crags found on the other. I became lost in reverie, the decay filling my lungs from the outside air, masking the stench of salt with another. Suddenly, pressure bore down on me and the walls shrieked as the boards bowed inward. I quickly stood up just as we hit something; the ships bow was thrown to the side and I fell along with it. I regained my composure, feeling pain in my palm. I had gripped the quill as we were hit and stuck myself with it, again drawing blood.
Cries sounding from the deck pulled me outside. As I opened the door I was met with calls of “Man overboard!” The crew were looking over the port side railing and I joined them. There was a man in the water with the gulls. His arms reached upward and feathers gripped his flesh, pulling him back down. He tried to keep afloat as gulls converged on his position. His cries for help muffled by the squawks of the dead. The stench of decay filled every pore on my body and I wretched overboard, into the mass of corpses.
The First Mate tied a rope around the waist of the Boy and ordered out, “Boy, climb down the side o’ the ship and get out to ‘im! We’ll pull ye’ back up! Now stop staring and get to it!”
The Boy, eyes wild, looked out over the side of the ship and after a moment of resolve, jumped into the water next to the man. He quickly wrapped the rope around him. The squawks turned to squeals as the First Mate roared, “Now pull!” as most of the crew tried to pull the two back up out of the decay below. I joined in at the end of the rope and pulled as hard as I could, the quill wound on my palm burning as I did.
Soon the Boy and the man crept up the side of the ship and desperately latched onto the railing, pulling themselves up. Gulls clung to the two, their lifeless bodies grasping with wings pasted across their arms, legs, and chests. The second their feet touched the deck they ripped the gulls from their skin with animalistic roars and threw them overboard to join their brethren. I fell to my rear, along with some of the other men, gasping for breath, wishing for that salty air to return but met only with rot.
“Did anyone see what hit the ship? Who was on lookout?!” the Captain called out from the bow, looking from the crew to out over the waters.
“Sir, there was nothing at all there, I didn’t take my eyes off the water for a second!” called one of the men.
The Captain stormed down each step to the main deck and shouted out, “Yes! Surely there was nothing. And you can hope those two men you nearly killed won’t have your head in return! First Mate, take the men and check the hull for damage and report to me immediately! Mr. Navigator, again we must make an adjustment. And Boy!” he looked over to the sopping pile of ragged breathing, “You just saved that man’s life, well done.”
The flustered First Mate collected himself and called out, “All right, no time for rest men, up and at em’, ye heard the Captain! Split up and check the lower decks. Lights fadin’ fast, if we be needin’ repairs lets make ‘er quick!”
The men wearily stood to their feet. The one thrown overboard moved to join the rest of the men. The Boy remained seated, glassy-eyed.
“You two ain’t joinin’ us!” One of the more weathered crew called out to them. “You stay the hell away, keep that damned gull curse to yerself!
“Aye!” Another called out. “And don’t even think of sleepin’ near us neither!”
The Boy, stuck in a daze merely stared off the side of the ship, out to sea.
“Aye lads, the two of ye jus’ keep watch for now. And keep a damned good grip on those rails.” The First Mate turned and along with the rest of the crew, disappeared beneath the deck.
“Well then Mr. Navigator, again to your instruments, make haste.” the Captain prodded me along, snapping me out of my preoccupation with the crew’s superstitions. As the Boy stood and moved toward the bow, I turned to head to the navigation room.
Again I triple checked my calculations. Again I was left shocked and even more-so disturbed by my findings. One hundred and eighty degrees. The ship had turned right around. Surely it was impossible, even with the jarring shift from that collision with whatever it may have been. I found myself absentmindedly tapping the quill on the charts, staring at the pocks, the dried blo— I jumped up out of the chair, the quill shined, wet with red ink. My eye pulled to a dark red ring staining the chart as the ink bled outward. Blood dripped from my hand, my palm steadily trickling from the quill wound I thought insignificant. A twinge of pain came from my cheek.
The door flung open as the Captain made his way in with a gruff sigh. I wiped my cheek with the back of my hand. Embarrassed at my own shock, I quickly sat back down. “Looks like just some minor damage thankfully. It was nearly patched up by the time I was down to check. At least they actually move when their own hides are at risk.” The Captain drooped into the chair. He looked to the charts, and then to me. I stared back.
“Well, lad? What of your calculations?”
“Ah, yes, sorry.” I was shaken and needed to compose myself. “Well, sir, I don’t quite know what to say. I can’t really believe it myself, it would be hard t—
The Captain slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the metal and glass devices strewn about. “Out with it! We need to get back on course.”
“Oh! Yes, sir, of course. Well shockingly, it seems, sir, that we have been spun all the way from fore to aft. An entire one hundred and eighty degrees, sir.”
“What the hell did you say?” the Captain asked with a snarl as he moved past me to look at the horizon. The sun was nearly underwater, now to the port side. “How is this possible?” the Captain wearily mumbled. “I’ve never seen something like this in all my days out at sea.”
I returned to tapping at the charts with my quill, the ink now dry again. “Sir do you think that this could have something to do with the gulls about the base of the ship? Could they be getting in the way of the rudder, or maybe…”
The Captain moved to stand across the table from me. “Mr. Navigator, I told you to dismiss such thoughts from your head. The true danger of superstition comes from worry and the stress it bears down upon you. A man is more liable to make a mistake, and at sea more likely a deadly one, when he’s worrying about every little bad omen about. Now I’ll go adjust the ship, I’ll make sure the helm is manned all night and that we double our watch for any possible… debris we might have in our way. Now get to rest, I’ll see you at first light.”
I left the room and walked to the port-side railing. The gulls suffocated the ship at the waterline. Bloated corpses bobbed along with the movement of the sea. Another wave of decay filled my nose and I forcibly held down what was left in my stomach. The gulls began to caw to one another. A loud slap came from down below. A wing stuck to the base of the ship. Slap! Slap! Slap! More and more wings came up out of the water and clung to the side. The ship tried to cut through the water as it was used to but it was pulled and dragged by the grasping wings below. The caws grew to a horde of shrieks drowning out the slaps as the wings pulled the ship down into the sea. I placed my hands over my ears but it was still to much. I began to feel faint. I stumbled backward and was stopped by a hand.
“Get to bed, Mr. Navigator.” The Captain’s solemn words pierced through the shrieks and suddenly, it was silent but for the sound of the sea.
I looked toward the Captain and humbly made out a, “Yes, sir,” in a hoarse tone before he angrily made way to his cabin. I quickly peeked back down over the edge. Lifeless bodies floated alongside the ship. I turned and spotted the Boy, standing at the bow, peering out to the sea. For a moment I watched him standing perfectly still, until I made my way down to my bunk to rest. I quickly fell into a deep slumber.
Some hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke to the smell of decay so palpable I could taste it. I groggily stumbled my way down to the storeroom, begging that the salt come back to me. Lighting the lantern, it cast a warm glow across the storeroom, creating dark and murky shifting shadows as the light wobbled along with the ship. With a practised hand, the tops of barrels and containers freed their goods. The spices and dried meats lent no help. I looked to the biscuits and stared in horror. The head of a gull poked out, its body sunken within. I ripped through the dried meats, pulling out a gull by the wing. I dug through the spices and found a webbed foot before falling back in shock.
I burst from the storeroom and made for the Captain’s quarters. Breaching from the lower decks I paused and looked about. There were none on the deck. No lookout or helmsman, save for the Boy standing stalwart at the bow. It was completely silent. The sails laid lazily, no wind to pull them taut. The ship was frozen in place. I ran to the Captain’s door and banged with my fist. “Sir! The ship has run to a halt and there are none watching the helm! I feel that something is quite amiss!” I heard rummaging through the cabin and banged again, “Sir!” I looked back toward to bow and saw the Boy.
The Boy stood with his arms outward, looking over the sea as bulbous corpses slowly rose, waterlogged wings slapping against the air. Not even able to get out a scream, I rushed to the port-side railing of the ship. Gulls swarmed the waters, stretching out tens of metres into the distance. Wings rose to the air and flapped sluggishly, heavy with seawater, dragging corpses along with them. I retreated from the railing as more and more gulls took to the skies.
“Yes! Take me!” the Boy screamed out as his head snapped back looking up to the sky which was slowly becoming blotted out by the gulls.
The gulls replied, beginning to squawk and shriek. The cacophony of noise poured into my head. Rotted seawater rained down on the ship as the dripping corpses jerkily rose and sunk in the air. Encapsulated by noise and drenched in decay, I fell to my knees. My senses were overwhelmed. The Captain’s door burst open and wrenched me from the dizzying gulls. The Captain looked at the crazed boy standing at the bow as gulls encircled overhead.
“Boy..? Navigator, what the hell is this?” He stumbled forward, shock on his face.
“Sir, somethings wrong with the Boy!”
As if in response, the Boy began to scream out to the gulls. The Captain strode forward but was cut off as gulls broke from formation, diving down toward me.
A wave of corpses sloppily cannon balled into me from all angles, ricocheting onto the deck with heavy thuds. My arms moved to defend myself, taking the brunt of the blows from the front. Even still, I was being thrown around, barely able to stay on my feet from their barrage. The gulls thrown to the deck began to creep forward, their wings slapping down on the wood, pulling their bulbous bodies in tow. Wings wrapped around my ankles and shins, holding me in place. Ripping at their wings to no avail, I was encircled by gulls.
Between a flurry of feathers, I could make out the Boy slowly advancing in my direction. He called and gulls shot out from their encirclement, beak and claw at the ready. One by one, gulls flew toward me, ripping at my face and right hand. I flailed about, battering into them. Each connection with their bodies like slamming into liquid tar. I screamed as they ripped at my cheek and palm. Digging into my pockets for something to defend myself with, I pulled out the quill and wildly stabbed at the air. It found purchase, embedding itself into the stomach of an incoming gull. I pulled back, releasing a spray of dark red ink. It weakly cried out and fell to the deck.
“No!” the warped voice of the Boy shrieked out, sounding less and less of a man.
Wings began to detach from my legs, turning toward the downed gull. The surrounding gulls shifted focus, bearing down on their fallen brethren. Beaks and claws struck at the gulls stomach. Rotted flesh and seawater ruptured from the belly as they continued to rip and tear the body asunder.
The Boy breached the encirclement of gulls, staring me down. His face a pale white in shocking contrast to his eyes, now a murky gray. His mouth opened wide and he shrieked as he charged to tackle me. Free from the gulls, I sidestepped at the last moment. He stumbled forward and I struck down at him, planting the quill deep into his back. He fell to the deck, face first, sliding into the mess of seawater and flesh.
Wings slapped the deck, pulling their bodies toward the Boy as he struggled to stand back on his feet. The encirclement again began their barrage, throwing themselves into the Boy and knocking him back to the ground. The wings reached the Boy and gripped him from all sides, holding his legs and arms in place. I watched in horror as the Boys back was ripped to shreds, his shrieks mixing in with the gulls until there was no discerning a difference. They ripped deep into his back, pulling out viscera as blood joined with the rot and disgust already on the deck.
My adrenaline left me and I began to dizzy. I fell to my rear and looked to my mangled hand. My cheek burned, exposed to the open air. With the gulls focused on the Boy, the Captain broke through the encirclement. He grabbed me by my armpits and dragged me back to his cabin, barricading the door with a chair. He wrapped my wounds with cloth as I faded in and out of consciousness.
“Stay with me, Mr. Navigator, we’ll reach shore yet,” he cajoled me to life as I sank into sleep.
I woke to a start in the physician’s quarters. A dull pain held steady in my hand and face. I called for the physician and demanded to speak with the Captain. He checked my wounds before leaving to retrieve him. Moments later the Captain burst through the door, a warm relief on his face.
“Mr. Navigator, I’m glad to see you well.”
“Yes, well… if that is what you can call it.”
The Captain quickly shifted to a solemn expression and tone. “Mr. Navigator, what happened two nights ago, it is not for us to speak of.”
“What? But… how could you say such a thing, after seeing what we’ve seen?!”
The Captain let out a deep sigh, “Indeed, Mr. Navigator. What we saw was otherworldly. Ruminating on it will only bring madness and speaking of such things will spurn others to think us crazed.” The Captain turned, looking away from me. “The Boy lost his mind, attacking the lookouts and helmsmen during the cover of night. After discovering his atrocities, he attacked you. Luckily, I heard your scuffle and together we threw him overboard. When asked as to why we did not restrain him, it was because we had no choice. He was wielding a blade and was crazed.”
“Such a simple story for what all of that was… What of the foodstuffs? Corpses of gulls were stuffed into the barrels and crates.”
“Yes, but only some of them were tainted. We will have enough to get by, as long as we ration. Our journey was nearly at its end before all of this business took place. Now I still need you to look over our charts. Get to it, and then back to rest, Mr. Navigator.”
I sat, contemplating the Captains words, when the strong odour of salt filled my nose. “Yes, sir. Let us be done with all of this.”
Two weeks later, we docked. I walked straight to solid earth, slightly rickety, attempting to readjust to my ground-legs as I went. I reached a patch of soil and dropped to my knees, rubbing dirt between my fingers. I looked back to the ship. The Captain stood at the bow, watching me as I cleansed myself in the soil. I vowed to never venture into that wasteland of salt ever again.