The Flying Dutchman
It was on the tenth day out to sea that I first laid eyes upon the Captain. I was just a girl, though they thought I was a boy just like all the rest, experiencing her first taste of the open ocean. The sun was high that afternoon. It scorched our backs and our necks were already burned scarlet.
The Captain appeared on the top deck and cracked his whip twice. On the second crack we each stopped what we were doing and looked up as the Captain leered down at us with his toothy grin. I felt the goose-pimples spring out all over my body.
Beside me Old Bobby Marlowe shuddered and, as I watched, the Captain climbed down on to our deck and began to march towards us. With each step his iron right leg clanked against the damp wood and every time he let out a deep breath, we could see the condensation on the air. He wore a dark grey eyepatch over his left eye and I had heard numerous tales over what lay beneath it. I never believed any of them. Foolish child that I was.
Old Bobby used to whisper about it after he’d had a few too many drinks. Every one of us knew his claim but none of us could have said whether it was just the idle fantasy of an old man or if there was some truth to his stories. There weren’t many of us who still paid attention to Old Bobby for the old sea dog had lost his mind decades ago, or so I was told. I guess that’s the fate that awaits us all if we serve as long as he has. Fifty years and not a single day ashore but Old Bobby was one of the lucky ones.
Old Bobby had warned me about the Captain’s inspections and now I would see his foul purpose firsthand. We were ushered into single file – a line of bedraggled, stinking and silent slaves nervously awaiting whatever fate would soon befall us.
The Captain reached the place where I was stood; my knees were shaking and my lips quivered uncontrollably. His one good eye bored into the very depths of my soul and for one agonising moment I thought I would surely faint. Relief came as the Captain snorted and moved further down the line. I closed my eyes wishing for it all to be over.
When I opened them the Captain was gone and so were two of our number. Old Bobby leaned towards me, his eyes twinkling with the madness behind them.
‘An’ der yer knows where thay git tekken?’ Old Bobby curled his wrinkled lips upwards into a wry smile.
‘No,’ I replied though my voice was weak and barely carried on the rushing wind.
‘Thay git tekken below dekks an’ this is ner werd of a lie,’ Old Bobby paused for a crowd had now gathered around him. He looked at each of us in turn. ‘Thay git fed.’
Little Henry, I don’t know why they called him that as he wasn’t little and his name wasn’t Henry either, let out a roar of contemptuous laughter.
‘Fed?’ He snorted. ‘What the bleeding heck are you gabbling about now, Bobby?’ Old Bobby was not put off by Little Henry’s outburst and he merely stared at him, wide-eyed, waggling the mangled stump where his index finger had once been.
‘Yer’d der well ter listen,’ warned Old Bobby. ‘Thay git fed an’ fed til thar bellies can’ tek ner more an’ tha’s when he gits them. Mark ma werds. Yer don’ wan’ ter hear what he does ter them.’ At that Old Bobby fell silent and, try as we might, none of us could get him to say a thing more.
Weeks passed and life carried on as it always had. For every sailor we lost, another would take their place. Often in the dead of night, as we slept below, the ship would make anchor and a dozen more doomed souls came aboard. We kept to ourselves – it was safer that way and I knew it would be a long time before I forgot the memory of Scarface Allie screaming as the Captain selected her with a point of his long gnarled finger. She fought all the way back to his cabin; I was strangely proud of her for that.
For five days and nights, I was tormented by that nightmare until at last I could take no more and I did the only thing I could think of to do. I sought out Old Bobby and confronted him. The night was late but I knew Old Bobby would be sound asleep on the cold floor with his back resting against the curved wall of the ship.
‘I need to know what the Captain does to those he takes,’ I said gently shaking Old Bobby awake. He squirmed and ran his yellowed fingernails along his scraggly grey beard.
‘Yer shud net be arskin’ thet,’ he warned.
‘Come on Bobby,’ I pleaded. ‘You’re the only one who knows anything around here.’ I looked around desperately hoping that our conversation would not wake the others. The last thing I needed was a ruckus drawing the Captain into our midsts. Old Bobby moved suddenly and grabbed hold of my collar. His grip was surprisingly strong.
‘Listen ter me girl,’ Old Bobby whispered. My mind was racing. Had he just guessed, or had he always known but kept it to himself? ‘Yer can stop pretendin’, Old Bobby knew yer wer’ a girl tha momen’ he firs’ laid eyes upon yer.’ He loosened his grip and I was able to breathe at last. I stifled a spluttering cough with the back of my grime-covered hand.
‘Please help me,’ I mouthed.
‘Old Bobby he tried, yer see? He tried ter dig an’ he go’ this fer his trubbles.’ Old Bobby pointed his stump at me and cackled maniacally. I shot an agitated look at our fellow sailors but no one stirred. ‘The Captain, he did tha’ ter me. He teared off Old Bobby’s finger wit’ his own rottin’ teth. A werning. Tha’s wha’ he terld me.’
I felt a shudder course through my body. It was unpleasant enough to stare at but now that I knew the truth of Old Bobby’s injury it turned my stomach. The bile rose and I quickly swallowed it, wincing as the burning sensation carried all the way down. I could still taste it lingering in the back of my throat.
‘Ser yer best be runnin’ aleng, aye? Yer wernt find enythang in the brig.’ Old Bobby fixed me with a steely gaze and I felt sure he was trying to give me a clue.
‘If there’s a chance we can save them…any of them, we have to take it,’ I said firmly. Old Bobby continued to stare. ‘Don’t you want to get off this ship?’
‘Thars ner way of leevin’ this ship, girl.’
The sea breeze was bitter and it seemed that if the Captain didn’t kill me, I would surely die of a chill. I had wrapped up warm but you can never have enough layers on the open sea. There were no officers about so I felt certain that I could sneak down to the brig without being seen. I placed a hand over my chest. I don’t think I had ever heard my heart beat so fast before.
Old Bobby had given me a map which he’d drawn himself during his first year aboard. I studied the yellowed parchment carefully although it was difficult to make out Old Bobby’s writing in the faint moonlight.
‘Keep calm,’ I muttered to myself. ‘You’ll be okay.’ I reached the ship’s stern and saw the door that Old Bobby had pointed out on his map. I opened it delicately and hoped that no one had heard the low echoing creak it made. I stood, waiting with the door open for a few tense minutes until I could be sure that no one was coming. With my courage gathered, I stepped through and closed the door behind me. At once I was plunged into darkness but my eyes were accustomed to it and I began the slow descent to the brig.
The bowels of the ship were dark, dingy and a musty rotting smell hung about the air. My nostrils were filled with it and it was I could do to stop myself from constantly retching. Although my eyes could see but a little way ahead of me, I had to feel my way forward with my hands. This did little to settle my nerves but I couldn’t go back. Not now I had come so far.
Footsteps echoed behind me. I pressed myself up against the wall and froze. I waited for them to pass but they never did. I grimaced.
‘Fool,’ I chided myself. ‘You’re just imagining things.’ I considered this for a moment. It was only natural in my current state but I couldn’t let it get the better of me. Perhaps it was this that had driven Old Bobby to madness. I stepped away from the wall and continued on until I turned the corner and the light of the brig enveloped me. I was nearly there and as I started to run, I took no heed of the clanking footsteps behind me.
I wrenched the brig door open – to my surprise it was not locked – and immediately covered my mouth so that I would not scream or call out. Allie was chained to the back of the musty cell; her head flopped limply to one side and I could seem from the dim light of her eyes that it had been weeks since she had last seen daylight. She wasn’t starved, however, and for a time I was puzzled until it became clear that something was feeding her. I stepped closer and saw that Allie was hooked up to rubber tubes that protruded through holes in the wall.
I took another careful step. But Allie made no indication that she had even seen me; a smell of faeces hung about her person. I approached the tubes and examined them intently. A beige-tinged liquid flowed through them and into Allie’s mouth where she swallowed silently. Her stomach gurgled and stretched. And the feeding did not stop. I wondered how much more Allie would have to take before the Captain came back for her.
I looked for a way to remove the tubes but they were clamped tightly to Allie’s face and there was no hope of breaking her chains either. I fell against the wall and tasted salty tears in my mouth.
I blinked; a shadow had passed across the open doorway and I realised too late just how exposed I was. I looked up and saw the Captain silhouetted against the frame. His eyes found mine and, as he let out a long harsh cackle of delight, I felt warmth spread across my crotch. The urine dripped down my legs but I couldn’t stop it as the Captain approached me with each clunk of his iron leg.
A hand closed around my neck and I was lifted into the air. I fought for breath as the Captain’s fingers tightened and constricted my throat. My face was turning purple and my strength left me. It was then that I lost consciousness.
When I came to, my stomach overturned and I vomited all down my front. It took a while for my eyes to adjust and there seemed to be a dozen shapes swimming in and out of focus. I felt something sharp protruding into my mouth. Horrorstruck, my eyes flickered down and I saw what I had been dreading.
The Captain had put me in the chains beside Allie and now I was hooked up to the tubes as well. Almost as soon as this realisation had dawned, I tasted my first taste of the beige liquid. It was sweet, sugary and, strangely, it did not disagree with me. Before I knew what was happening, I was swallowing it earnestly and my tongue curled around my lips to get every last drop. It was as if I wasn’t in control of my own body.
I looked over at Allie. She was still swallowing in silence and I saw now that her belly had outgrown her rags. I figured she had at most a day before the Captain decided to feed on her succulent flesh. I glanced down at my own stomach and saw that it had already swollen beyond its natural size. Sudden convulsions ran through my body and, without any sensation, I excreted into my underwear. The convulsions passed and I sat back in my own shit.
‘Allie,’ I tried to say through a mouthful of liquid. I didn’t know if she could even hear me. ‘Allie!’ I called again, louder. In the faint light I saw Allie lift her head off her shoulder and turn toward me.
‘So he took you too,’ said Allie. Her voice was croaky and each syllable seemed to take a tremendous effort. ‘Better get used to it,’ Allie continued breathlessly. ‘You ain’t leaving this place.’ She grimaced for a second and then relaxed. ‘It’s the excretion I can’t stand.’ I nodded as I swallowed more of the food. Allie frowned. ‘You’re getting more than me,’ she noted.
‘I can’t stop myself,’ I said. For the first time I heard Allie laugh. It was hollow and it didn’t last long but it was unmistakably laughter.
‘He wants to fatten you up quickly,’ remarked Allie. I didn’t like the way she licked her lips as she said it. ‘Looks like we’ll be done together. The Captain must be planning a feast.’
I didn’t answer. My eyelids drooped and all I could feel was the heaviness of my own stomach as it continued to stretch. I didn’t even flinch when I excreted more wet shit into my pants. I was utterly helpless.
It seemed as if that day would last for an eternity but at long last the air was filled with the familiar clunk of the Captain’s leg. For the first time in my life I was glad to hear it. I opened my eyes and welcomed the Captain’s presence as he knelt beside us. Allie was unchained first. The Captain unhooked the tubes and placed Allie against the wall. He watched her for a minute waiting to see if she would attempt to run. When she didn’t he smirked and proceeded to release my chains.
I was thrown against Allie like two well-fed pigs kept in the same pen. I tried to stand but my legs buckled under my new weight and I fell heavily against the damp wooden floor. An arm reached under my belly and another under Allie’s and we were both lifted up carried out of the brig. The Captain took care to make sure that our heads both bashed against the frame and against each other as he made his way towards the ship’s dining room.
It was a large open room with a luxurious oak table that stretched from end to end. Other than that the room was bare save for a roaring fireplace on the righthand side.
My head throbbed relentlessly as we were dropped onto the table. Allie rolled over and fell on to the floor, crushing my legs as she went. Even before it happened, I knew it was too late to save her. The Captain selected a long sharp carving knife from the table and I heard Allie screaming as he sliced across her plump belly until everything went quiet.
When the Captain looked up I saw dark red flesh dripping from his lips. The blood ran down his chin and he winked at me. The Captain swallowed and I watched as he bent down to take another bite out of Allie’s limp carcass. I dropped off the table with a thud on the other side. I don’t know what made me do it, I just knew I had to do something.
I grabbed hold of the Captain with my thick hands and pushed him as hard as I could towards the fire. Taken by surprise, the Captain leapt forwards and fell headfirst into the crackling flames. His screams filled the air as first his clothes and then his own flesh melted away. The last thing I saw of the Captain was his grey eyepatch before it curled into ash. In the end there was nothing beneath it. Only death.
Sickened by my own necessary actions, I knelt beside Allie and cradled her body in my arms. Her intestines were warm and wet against my arms but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to let her go not now I had found her again.
The door swung open and I saw Old Bobby standing in the frame. He walked gingerly towards me and I felt him attempt to pull me away from Allie.
‘No,’ I cried out feebly. ‘No.’
‘Yer needs ter le’ me help her,’ Old Bobby mouthed. I wanted to stop him to say that there was nothing he could do. I wanted him to leave her be. I wanted Allie left in peace.
As I write these words I can taste the sea-spray in my mouth and the feel the wind blowing against my rosy cheeks. My hair is long now, my clothes well-made and the leather first mate’s hat sits comfortably on my scalp. A hand grabs my wrist and I look around to see our Captain smiling broadly.
‘Where to Captain?’ I ask and now I’m smiling too.
‘Home,’ replied Allie. ‘Let’s go home, Kat.’ We stand arm in arm looking out across the flat calm. The bow slices gently through the water and I wonder if perhaps it’s all a dream. If it is, it is a good dream and I hope we never wake from it.