The woods are never solitary–they are full of whispering, beckoning, friendly life. But the sea is a mighty soul, forever moaning of some great, unshareable sorrow, which shuts it up into itself for all eternity.
Lucy Maud Montgomery
Slowly and noiselessly, the candle was burning out. Once, in its death throes, it flashed brightly enough to illuminate the small room where this flame would meet its end. There was very little to see.
A small bed with downed comforter and feathered pillow sat in one corner and consumed nearly the entire wall of the tiny room; a fireplace – filled with ash – adorned the wall opposite the oaken bedframe. A short and sturdy table stood between the bed and the fireplace. The two other walls were portals to the outside world; one held a tall, heavy door and the other a four paned window that bore the smudges of oft-groping fingers. The floor was wooden and marked with deep grooves from the boots that had repeatedly walked it. Many years ago the walls had been haphazardly painted white, but over the years layer after layer of grime and dust had coated the uneven surface. Yet the room was empty more than it was filthy, it had the look of a place long since left to fend for itself against the slow wear and decay of passing years.
With an effort he rose from the table. His heavy footfalls reverberated through the room. The light of the candle turned the surface of the window to a mirror and he was faced with his reflection for just an instant before the candle breathed its last heavy breath and sputtered to an end. In the moment that he was given, he saw his crooked nose, the scar that ran like a stream over the landscape of his chin, the long tresses of brown scraggly hair that framed his face.
He thought that he did not look entirely himself; there was a sense of haziness draped over the image of his flesh. Weariness, he thought. And he was right. Weariness hung about him like a heavy cloak. He did not see his eyes in the reflection, shrouded beneath his heavy brow their cold grey was not mirrored and instead his face looked back at him with two sunken eyes of black.
But in an instant the light was gone and transparency returned to the glass. He looked over the small portside town. The streets were alight with the radiance of streetlamps and the soft light that emanated through windows from the candles that lit taverns, inns and homes. The orange and red lights shone on the cobbled streets and the town glowed like the embers of a dark fire.
His eyes moved ever westward towards the sea. And there it was, lining the horizon as a boundless and impenetrable barrier. To the ends of the earth it flows, over sunken mountains and cities, concealing the great beasts of the world. No man, even the hardiest and most sea-worn, has seen but a tiny fraction of the glorious whole of the ocean and no man, no matter how learned or read, knows to where it leads or how it ends.
His eyes traced the line of the horizon and then were drawn up to the stars as they revealed themselves against the abyss of the sky. With sullen eyes he looked to the beacons in the black. “Where will you lead me now?” he wondered.
Sunlight hit the granite street and reflected off of the quartz and impurities in the stone, shimmering and shining like a thousand tiny stars lighting the road. Stained and frayed from years of long travel and toil, his overcoat flapped about his knees in the wind.
Granite stones were replaced with wooden planks as he moved onto the dock. Mid-morning was always a busy time at the docks, a time when men of many different moulds followed their hearts or, often enough, their wallets towards the bounty of the sea. Sailors rose from their drunken stupors to head towards risk and reward, privateers issued commands to those same groggy seamen, young apprentices were learning the ropes (literally and figuratively) and frantically trying to please their masters, and occasionally one of the stuffy ship owners from the east side of town would find his way down from the great confines of his estate to make sure that his precious investment was no worse for being maintained by the limey scum to which he had entrusted it.
Through this chaotic crowd the Captain passed like a ghost, taking notice of everything that he passed, though no one took notice of him. In this world, where words and egos clashed, he was a phantom, neither speaking nor being spoken to. And so he came to her.
Rising from the still surface of the water she rose, a sunburnt goddess. Her twin masts stood tall and proud, naked with sails furled. The forecastle stood like a watchful mother, observing all that happened beneath. Curving up with the gentle slope of the keel as it moved to the nose of the ship, his eyes found their way to the prow. At the foremost point of the entire ship, on her very nose, there was an angel carven in wood, with wings and arms spread wide as though its image had been captured in the very act of diving into the sea above which it was destined to fly forever.
When she was built for him, he had been younger and his mind had been filled with textbooks and teachings, and so he had named her. Venus. She was his world, and only with her, sailing to the far reaches of the sea, was he at home and at peace.
He climbed to the deck and looked out at the masses below. As he placed his hands on the worn wood of the wheel a slow smile spread across his face.
Looking up he saw the sun rise over the town, directly behind St. John’s. The sun rose and framed the cross that stood upon the highest tower, and eventually consumed it in light and flame.
As the day wore on, the crew slowly made their way to the ship, many, if not most, of the men seeing the Captain for the first time. Rarely was the Captain on hand for the hiring of the crew, a task that he left to his first mate, which was a position of great turnover itself.
Several weeks before each voyage, the Captain would scour the docks looking for what he considered a worthy candidate for the choosing and maintaining of a crew. Though his criteria were rather strict, the many first mates that served under the Captain formed a diverse selection of sailors with no externally obvious shared qualities. Instead of searching for a man of strength or age or travel, the Captain was more concerned with the mettle of his first mate, his ability to keep his composure even when all hell had broken loose. Men of all ages and backgrounds, of vastly different intellects and strengths, had served as first mate aboard Venus. The Captain was particularly pleased with his choice for this voyage and had been glad to hear that the young man had chosen to go to sea with Venus rather than one of the other positions that he had been offered.
Tall and slender, he wore his brown hair closely cropped and had the first signs of a beard forming about his chin. Though he was young, he was a man who earned respect from all those, young and old, that served with or under him. And although he could be sober and straight-faced, he was a jovial man and when he laughed he did so loudly and heartily and his mirth spread to his men. In his eyes flashed a desire for adventure, a desire for greatness. His name was Gareth Adams.
Adams, under the Captain’s orders, took control of the crew and readied the ship for departure. With the sails lowered, the plank was drawn in from the dock and on Adams’ signal the ship began to move away from the harbor town. Shining directly above, the sun gave no shadows as the men aboard Venus waved their farewells to those that they would leave far behind while they explored the farthest reaches of the sea.
In his cabin, nestled in the bowels of the ship, the Captain sat thoughtfully at his desk, poring over several torn and stained maps; he had no need of farewells.
Only after the shoreline was out of sight and the wide expanse of sea completely engulfed the horizon did the Captain emerge onto the deck. The grey light of his penetrating eyes searched his crew as they busied themselves with their tasks and duties. In his eyes was the reflection of the sun shimmering on the surface of the sea. Slowly his lips drew into a contented smile.
Without exception, Venus’s crewmen were hardy. Not a one of the crew was a cold or brutish sort, but they were tough men, men who had traveled far and who wanted more than a life of monotony. Years of toil and labor on the sea had left them tanned and calloused, sturdy and weather worn. They were men who sailed, like Adams, not for their wallet or for their livelihood, but for love of the sea and desire for adventure. Adams had recruited the crew with only the promise of danger and adventure, and the love of these was clear in the faces of all the crew.
Crooked, toothless smiles abounded onboard Venus. Joy could be seen in each crease on the back of each hand, in every eye that squinted beneath the midday sun, in the way that every man’s shoulders stood tall and broad despite the ineffable weight of heading out, aimless, into the infinite vacuum of the endless sea.
They knew not where they went and yet, for the time, their hearts were gayer for it, because, above the waves of the rolling sea, on top of the very world itself, a seaman finds a satisfaction unlike any other.
Romances come and go in life, and the men who sailed Venus had seen more than their fair share, but the love of the sea is something wholly different. No time or distance or tragedy can change the profound love that a sailor bears for the sea. She is a cruel and hard mistress, yet she is an unparalleled lover. Unconditional and unbridled is the bond that is shared between a seaman and his watery love. She means everything to him and he is willing to sacrifice all other things to make her his world, to live almost without end on the open sea. It does not matter whether or not she returns this affection; to give it is all that a seaman asks.
So departed Venus, with high hopes and hearts, bearing love onto the meandering paths of an uncharted ocean in search of adventure.
“Captain! Captain! Look, towards the east!”
The shouts were harsh and frantic and rent the quiet night air as they came to the Captain’s ears at the ship’s nose.
He turned to ask what could cause such a ruckus, but before he could speak the words aloud, his eyes took in the sight.
The dark outline of the mountains that still loomed up behind the path of Venus, having only been at sea for a matter of hours, was glowing red. Black darkness surrounded the ship on all sides on this, the first night out from port, and yet, as if the sun were rising out from the heart of the earth, a red glow as from a furnace was rising up to the sky from the base of the mountains.
“The city is burning!” The call went out from first one and then many mouths.
“Captain, we must go back and help them.” There was fear and compassion in Marin’s voice as he addressed the Captain for the first time aboard the ship.
His answer was stern and cold, the product of reason and harsh logic.
“We cannot help them. Not anymore.”
Roused by the sounds on deck, Adams came running out into the night air to learn the nature of all the fuss. He was shocked to see the light lapping at the knees of the mountains. In only a few minutes he knew all that there was to know of the situation as the men spoke loudly and quickly on the deck, their fears and hopes spewing forth into one ragged tale. He approached the Captain who stood calmly alone near the nose of the ship, with his back to the west, the light of the glow reflecting in his eyes.
“Surely we will turn the ship around, surely we will offer what aid we can to the townsfolk. The families of these men at least deserve that effort, do they not?”
“We have no idea what fate has befallen the shore but I am glad that we are sundered from it. If we were to go back, who knows what may come of it. If the city is burning and the docks as well, what is the reason? Has the city fallen under attack, are there mad men raiding and destroying? I will not bring Venus into such dangers knowlingly, she will not burn under my watch. No, the trouble on the shore is for those on the shore. Fate has spared us this time; it is an act of will that we set forth today, before the blaze could consume us all.” The Captain’s stoic eyes bore into Adams. “Comfort the men. Assure them that all is well, that their loved ones are fine. You do not need to lie, since it may prove true in the end. But soothe their hearts. For we are not going back. Our destiny is far from these shores, and I will not turn it aside. Go to them, Adams. Help them as you can.”
With that, Adams turned and ran back down to the stern and busied himself amongst the crew.
It was the first night since Venus had departed.
On the Sea
Time drove on, endlessly and incessantly like the lapping of the sea at the prow, and no adventure was had. Months and months and months passed. No danger was met. Each day was like the one before and bled seamlessly into the next. The wide ocean spanned the horizon and no isle broke the surface of the sea, just as no change broke the mundane pace of life onboard. Though the crew traveled not knowing their destination, they also traveled under promise of action, and none of it had they yet seen.
Days seemed to pass without any consequence. Though the ship strayed south occasionally, Adams constantly steered Venus westward, driving the ship on with an unerring consistency that suggested that he had no will in the matter.
Often the Captain could be seen on deck, though he usually made his way swiftly to the nose of the ship where he would stand, alone, and face the horizon. Though he spoke occasionally with Adams, they spoke in hushed voices and their secrecy only increased the growing anxiety of the crew.
On the rare occasion that one of the more social and gregarious members of the crew, such as Orpheus or Marin, attempted to speak with the Captain he answered them curtly and then headed back down to his cabin wherein his actions were unknown to all others onboard the ship.
Though he was not rude, the Captain’s speech with the crew was short and concise. He did not mince words and clearly did not intend to share more than he deemed appropriate. Some of the crew considered these displays of brevity to be a slight to them; at the very least, the Captains actions were certainly not fostering a sense of purpose or welcome.
On a day when the morning sun broke the horizon in a hail of sparking lights and the sky above was cloudless and blue as a husky’s eyes, the Captain approached Adams on the deck. Adams did not see the Captain, who was coming up from behind him, as he joked with Orpheus and Marin.
“…and so I said, ‘Thank God she wernt my mother!’” ended Marin at the conclusion of a tale worthy of the old salt’s tongue.
The three men were buckled over and roaring with laughter as the Captain’s hand fell firmly on Adams shoulder. With striking speed, the smiles faded from Orpheus and Marin’s faces. The first mate pulled upright and turned around with a grave face. He did not fear the Captain, but he respected him greatly did not wish to injure his reputation as a respectable man himself.
“Come with me, Adams. I’d like to have a word with you.”
Through Adams’ mind raced the possible conversations that he might have with the Captain. None seemed particularly pleasant, given the Captain’s closed demeanor and the rarity of his speech.
They walked steadily to the tail of the ship, the eyes of most of the sailors following them with a mix of confusion, anxiety and anticipation. Adams was sure to hold his head and chest high and walk with a sense of confidence; he did not want to appear a little boy being led by his master with all the crew watching, he wanted to be respected. He looked a man in their eyes.
“Have a seat,” the Captain said, as he gestured towards several crates that sat nearby, scattered about the stern of the ship.
Adams sat down gracefully, careful not to let his anxieties show themselves in his movements. No streak of cloud or cluster of birds marred the clear sky but Adams couldn’t tell whether the peaceful image of blue infinity above him was calming him with its soft hues or making him more nervous by comparison to the hectic nature of the feeling in his gut. Adams watched the Captain’s eyes as they stared out across the sea. A moment that seemed a year shimmered and passed.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
When Adams realized what the Captain’s words pertained to, he responded, “Yes. Yes, she is.”
For a brief moment the two sat together in silence, gazing out at the endless expanse of sea that sat before them. A cool sea breeze blew threw their hair and the soft sounds of the crew and the sea and the ship floated by their ears. On the rear deck of the ship, they gently rocked amongst the waves.
“What did you wish to speak with me about, sir?” Adams was no longer nervous. The sea had calmed him.
The Captain looked down to his hands as they sat, resting between his knees. He turned his eyes to Adams as he spoke, “What do you see, Adams,” his eyes shifted to the horizon, “out there?”
These words confused Adams and his brow was ruffled as he looked about him on all sides for some assistance. He was a young man, not yet accustomed to the riddles and puzzles in which old men speak. But he was quick on his feet, as well.
“The wide reaches of the sea, sir; home to mystery and adventure, to things unknown and unknowable.” Adams stopped for a moment to gauge the reaction of the Captain’s face, but it was grave and unreadable. He continued.
“She is a strange and cruel mistress, but I would have no other.”
“You speak wisely for one so young, Adams. But this I knew, when I asked you to man my crew.”
A small cloud emerged from the horizon as Adams looked, abashedly, down into his lap, his face flush with embarrassment.
“Thank you, sir.”
In the distance, the cloud grew larger as more and more of it rose from behind the cover of the sea.
“I have seen the world and it is a dangerous and unforgiving place. There is no compassion among men towards the living and no remembrance of the dead. To them, my name is written in water. But the sea,” here his trodden voice lifted, “though she does not forgive, she does not forget. She holds all that have found her to her heart. She is all that I have.”
Such sadness and sincerity rang in the Captain’s last word, that Adams felt obliged to interrupt.
“Surely, Captain, there are others. Family or friends who-”
His words were cut short.
“There are none. They are either gone or never were. I am alone, Adams. I have the sea,” he stared with hard eyes at her wide reaches, “and Venus.”
Adams watched as the ocean was reflected in the Captain’s eyes, as if the Captain were staring inwards towards his very own soul, questioning it and trying it against everything that he had said. A battle was raging before Adams and he knew that nothing he could say or do would aid either side in the conflict, because he knew not what each was fighting for, he knew nothing of the war that was being fought in the depth of that mighty soul.
Then, all at once, the Captain’s eyes cleared themselves of reflection and introspection. “I am alone,” he repeated.
Whistling winds tore through the air above Venus, pulling on her sails and masts. She had weathered many storms and this one too would she survive. All manner of storm and wind had she seen and always she had been their match. She had been built well, by strong hands and a wary mind; she would not break under these winds.
The Captain was staring with purpose out at the sea. His face was hard and his eyes tight with focus or rage, yet Adams could not tell which. The black clouds were growing.
“I will know her, before all is said and done.” The Captain’s voice was changed as he spoke. Gone were the somber-yet-loving silken words and flowing cadences with which he had spoken of the sea, and in their place were pained sounds and a sharp edge of disgust.
“I will find the ends of the world. That is our fate, Adams. To find the ends of the world. I will bring knowledge that no man has ever had back to shore, and I will not be forgotten like so many others. No. They will remember me.”
For the first time, Adams was concerned about the Captain, about his mind and about his heart and about the man that he must follow, but also about the crew, the men that he must lead. Confusion and conflict raged in his mind.
The two men sat in silence as the black clouds rolled in over the sea. When the time came, they rose from their seats and readied the ship for the storm.
Time moved ever on and on and, still, there was no change aboard the ship. There were no adventures, there was no danger. Dissension began to grow among the ranks.
Adams, though he did not share his full thoughts on the Captain, did his best to relate the humanity of his superior to the crew. But it was not enough. Murmurs of revolt and whispers of the Captain’s deceit began to float up from the bunks. Small scuffles and spats began occurring amongst the crew as division arose between those who supported the Captain and those who mistrusted him. Wild rumors began to arise onboard, a particularly creative one suggesting that the Captain was hell-bent on driving the ship on until it was assailed by pirates and then letting her sink in battle that he might die an honorable death and stay forever at the bottom of the sea.
Adams, dour faced, did what he could to soothe their concerns and ease their worries, but he could not be in all places at once. With the Captain so distant and aloof of his crew, Adams fought an uphill battle to defend him and his words.
“Sir,” Adams addressed the Captain in his quarters on a day when the tension on the ship had become palpable, “I think you ought to speak with the crew. Their frustration is running rampant and driving them against one another. Earlier today in the mess I had to break up a fight, and there were twice as many hands balled into fists as there were attempting to stop the violence.”
The Captain stood stone still, staring past Adams at some invisible point miles beyond the reach of the ship. As his eyes bore past Adams and through the hull of the ship, his lips were pursed and his breathing slow. Adams, who at first was sure that the Captain was exerting all his strength and focus on introspective thought, began to wonder if the Captain, who remained motionless as if struck dumb, was thinking at all.
“Sir,” Adams began again, “it’s just that…well, I think that a few words from you would go a long way towards pacifying the frustration and aggression that seems to be breeding on this ship.” The Captain didn’t move and this made Adams unsure of how he was being received; he did not want to question the Captain’s actions or judgment. He handled his words carefully and continued slowly and deliberately, “The men don’t need to know where we’re going, it’s not that, sir. They just…well, they don’t have confidence in their direction.” Adams was careful not to explicitly state the crew’s concerns with the Captain’s sanity or direction. “It’s not that they don’t trust you or won’t follow you, it’s that they know nothing of you at all. They just want to know who they’re following.”
Adams, whose eyes had drifted to the Captain’s boots, looked up at the Captain’s face. He felt that he had done his best to bring forth the true concerns of the crew without revealing the personal nature of their doubt in the Captain.
The Captain continued to stare blindly past Adams until, with one swift movement, his eyes moved to Adams’ eyes, though the rest of his being moved not an inch. For a brief instant, Adams was terrified by those eyes; eyes that plumbed the depths of the sea and saw farther than any other man that he had met, that had seen far and strange worlds and made them his own, eyes that knew both fear and love.
“You are right,” the Captain said slowly but firmly as a gentle smile eased across his face, releasing Adams from the fear that had momentarily gripped him. The Captain’s eyes drifted back to the distance and his voice became quiet yet strong like the icy currents at the bottom of the sea, “I had forgotten them,” he said. He looked back to Adams. “Thank you.”
With a spring in his step, the Captain ran lightly up to the forecastle. Turning about he observed all his ship and all his men. Standing tall and strong he rose above the deck like a great mast and bellowed, “Men!” addressing his crew for the first time. Passion and power, a tremendous strength, ran through his voice and, moving from whatever work they had been immersed in, the crew turned sharply towards the Captain.
In his element at last, the Captain was finally revealed to the crew. Flecked with gray, his dark hair was made a mess by the same wind that pushed and pulled at his long overcoat. And yet the wind seemed to have no effect on his voice; it cut through the air and each man heard his voice with full force, as if the Captain had been standing right next to him and speaking directly into his ear.
“Gather ‘round, my men! I wish to speak with you.” Every man on the ship moved without hesitation towards the forecastle, leaving knots untied and bolts unfastened. Drawing himself up higher than before, the Captain loomed over the men and to them he appeared the statue of a great king, of Perseus even, who had ruled with both strength and wisdom.
“My men, you have come from many different homes to man this ship. My Venus. Each of you comes on business of your own, driven by your own desires, for fortune, for glory, for adventure. I do not ask you to lay aside your passions. Rather, I ask you to bring them forth. The fire that each of you carries is but a match in the great world, likely to be extinguished by the slightest wind or doused by the faintest rain. I would not have it be so. I would have glory be ours. I would achieve something worth remembrance. And so I ask you, let me harness the fire that rages in each of you. Alone you are nothing, helpless hands on a helpless ship, to be forgotten in the moments after your inconsequential deaths. Yet, together you may be a great blaze, a fire that changes the world, a new sun by which all men are guided! Let me wield the great power that you may yet be!”
A great hush, a vacuum of sound, briefly fell over the men as their minds raced. Grand visions of returning home as great and powerful men, as men grown fat in both wisdom and wealth (and not necessarily in that order) filled their minds.
Then the silence was broken. Exploding with approval, the crew cheered and shouted in appraisal of the Captain, clamoring for more of his brilliant and elixir-like words. But no more did the Captain speak. With a simple grin curving over his lips he stood for a moment observing his crew, observing the magic that he had wrought upon them, and then he moved with a slow and steady grace back to his quarters. Adams rode the wave of emotion and took control of the crew, commanding them as he drove the ship ever westward into the great sea.
Later that night the deck was empty as the crew sat feasting in the mess. At the head of the ship, standing tall above the outstretched wings of an angel, stood the Captain. The sound of his ship groaning against the roaring sea filled his ears. With the sun sinking before him, the Captain squinted against the golden reflections of the surface of the water. He looked up as the brilliantly setting sun pierced the horizon. Aboard Venus, surrounded by the vast sea, the Captain was alone.
Under Unknown Stars
Venus traveled for many weeks after the Captain’s speech without any unrest on board. But the sea remained a blank slate, which would, once again, soon become maddening to the crew.
While the sea remained ever the same, all the world was not so mundane. Looking up from the deck at the stars that wove the mystery of the night sky, the Captain saw that they had changed. The stars had changed. They were not as they had always been. The guiding lights of sailors and prophets, the measures by which maps are made and seas crossed, had warped and moved.
“I am lost,” he thought, “so it has always been.”
He drove the ship ceaselessly on, as if the inability to navigate were in itself all the navigation that he needed to choose his course. And so perhaps was the truth; what he searched for was on no map. No known distance charts the ends of the earth, and it was to that end that he fled.
Though they had calmed after his initial speech, the crew again began to grow restless, not from the time at sea, to which they were accustomed, but from the unexplainable strangeness of the Captain and the sky. None of the crew were learned men, yet they were no fools either. Many days and nights, months and years, had these men spent on the vast expanse of the sea, and the stars were, in some degree, known to them. That the sky had changed was not lost on them; they knew that things were not as they had always been, but there was little sense of adventure or danger in this, only an uncomfortable anxiety that seemed to settle in each man’s stomach, a feeling of being out of place and unwanted.
“To where do we steer?” Orpheus questioned Adams. The crew no longer took to speaking with the Captain who, as if his cold rebuttals were not deterrent enough, had taken to spending longer hours in isolation, be it in the cabin or on the prow. His eyes were always distant now, as if he looked past the men in front him, past the very world in which he stood, and stared into a world that none other could sea, a world that had reached into his heart and torn him away from all that he had known until his entire soul was captured and all that remained on this plane was the vessel that had carried him.
The first mate looked at his crewmen with troubled eyes. He spoke somberly and honestly and in his words were the mingled traces of resignation and determination, as if both were warring inside of him for the mastery and neither could prove strong enough to overmatch the other. “I know not.”
And that was all that he would say. A more ominous gesture he could not have conjured. The crew, already disillusioned by the Captain’s apparent lunacy, was struck hard by this revelation. Adams had earned their trust. While the Captain was distant and foreign to them, Adams had become one of their own. He was their superior yet he carried no hint of pride and wore no cloak of arrogance. He was a humble man and good natured, and the crew had taken to him steadfastly.
Faith in Adams was so strong and marked amongst the crew that many had taken to believing that it was Adams who truly ran the ship and that he had brought the Captain aboard as a figurehead only. That he truly did not know to where they were going – he had not told them of the Captain’s secret desire because it would have been of no use, because he still did not know where they were going, for who knows where the ends of the earth lie? – or what lay ahead was extremely troubling for them.
For many days, venturing into weeks, Venus sailed under unknown stars. Mysterious and foreign were all the markings of the sky; it was as though Adams had steered the ship across the plane that demarcates the world of reality from the world of dreams. This new sky, and everything beneath it, seemed an illusion to the crew.
As the sky changed, so too did the Captain. Calm and serene, if aloof, he had been before. When the stars found their new homes, though, the Captain seemed to warp and become realigned with the sky. No longer did he retreat to his deck at all times of the day. A change had overtaken him and now the Captain was infatuated with the horizon and the sky. Every waking hour, or so it seemed to the crew, he stood at the prow of Venus, rising above the angel that dressed her face, his eyes tracing the line of the horizon or probing the vast depth of the blue or black sky.
The change that grew in the Captain was not limited to his preferred haunts onboard. Within days of arriving under the new sky, Adams and the crew began to notice that his mannerisms had changed. A sense of hyperawareness was in his eyes. Everything that occurred on board was within his view, as though he could see simply by virtue of the ship, as though it were a lens through which he could see. Movements that were once smooth and fluid became spastic and twitchy like those of a bird. Yet, he still carried himself with an air of grace.
The Captain had become an albatross. He was a bird, freed from his cage and seeing the clear and free sky for the first time. The deep black of his eyes looked out of his face with the desire to soar. He wanted to fly to the horizon and back, to make the world his own.
But the crew did understand this longing. To them, his transformation was complete. In their eyes, the Captain was an entirely different species. They could not speak with him and they could not relate to him. It seemed to the crew that the Captain had become crazed and filled with a bizarre madness. The rumors of mutiny that had been quelled by his speech long ago were rising once again.
“The Captain is unfit to lead us! His mind is stolen and gone like the stars of old, the stars by which we could navigate. We are lost now, and at this he seems pleased. We cannot follow him any more.” They cried their complaints to any ear that would listen, finding only one another and the silent sea.
Again, it fell to Adams to either quiet this cause or to bring it to the Captain himself. He was torn between his loyalties. He would bide his time, he decided, until some sign made his choice clearer.
In the mess, the crew was eating. On deck, Adams stood at the prow, staring into the night sky and the sea, seeing the reflections of stars and constellations that he had never learned, that no one had ever learned, be reflected in the glass-like surface of the water. Many thoughts and concerns were tossing and turning as Adams mulled them over in his mind. He had not imagined this. Never did he think that he would find himself in such a trying place, torn in all different directions by his duty, his loyalty and his desire.
His duty, first and foremost, was to serve the Captain. Yet a part of his post was to act in the best interest of the crew, to use his judgment to keep those men safe if the Captain’s mind should fail. Had he reached that point? Was there no hope that the Captain led Venus down a worthy road? And what of Adams’ lust for adventure? Should he ignore his desire to make a name for himself, much as the Captain had spoken? Though he knew that some madness or weariness tainted the words of his commanding officer, those words had struck a chord with him, with the ambition that ran within him and within all men to live a life worthy of being remembered, to make a name that none will forget.
Questions pounded Adams’ mind. Questions for which he had no answers.
He was tired and weary from thought when the Captain appeared next to him. There was a fierce glow in the Captain’s eyes, but his face was gentle and relaxed, as a man who is at peace and without worry. His tongue moved freely and with grace.
“It is a beautiful thing, Gareth, to find new seas.” Adams was shaken, the sincerity in the Captain’s voice was not uncommon, but the words that were wrapped in his smooth speech were, as the Captain rarely used Adams’ first name.
“We go where no one has been before.” The glow in his eyes was exploding now, a fiery furnace of passion and intensity, of love and satisfaction. “To the ends of the Earth we will go. We will be remembered.” Brightly and subtly the flames burned in his eyes, radiating out to Adams, both comforting and dangerous.
The Desolation of the Squid
Without warning, in the middle of a bright day like so many others on Venus’s voyage, the sea erupted in a boiling frenzy. Towers of water rose from the deep and came crashing down into the ship. The sudden and unforeseen chaos took the crew by surprise as they scrambled against the unknown assailant.
The first tentacle struck with a power like thunder, booming onto the ship. Splinters of rails and barrels filled the air like the debris of a violent explosion. From the heart of the sea the tentacle had come, and now others were born as well. Reaching like gargantuan snakes being called to the heavens by the great Charmer, the tentacles lashed out from the surface of the ocean, too numerous to count.
Wider across than the breadth of an oak’s trunk, the rubbery tentacles were thick and resilient, crushing everything that stood in their way. Slick and gleaming from the water that clung to the hide of these limbs, they were a vibrant and fiery orange, the color of a sun that is only just breaking the plane of the earth as it sinks beneath the horizon.
The Captain stood silent and stone still amid the raucous action that played out in front of him. No sound penetrated his ears and, though his eyes saw all that unfolded, the images had only glanced across his mind leaving no print or mark. Though he saw what was happening, he did not know that it was real. To him it all seemed a great and elaborate fantasy born of sleepless nights and a knotted mind.
Violently the sound rushed into his ears, a pain like his eardrums splitting made him buckle forward. For a moment he stumbled and then he stood tall and strong, the grimace of pain wiped from face, which was now blank and intense, housing an analytical mind assessing the situation.
Screams rang out over the broken waves as the squid tore at Venus and massacred the crew. The Captain watched as one of the great tentacles picked up Marin and ripped him under the ragged surface of the sea, only to resurface – with Marin nowhere to be seen – and tear at the very spot on the deck where he had stood, ripping up the planks.
In the chaos on the deck, all the crew, Adams included, were running about frantically trying to find a way to survive the demon’s assault. Orpheus thought to hurl a spear at the beast, but the shaft hit the hide of the monster and snapped instantly, leaving the squid unfazed.
Invincible though the squid seemed, the great monster was bound to have some weakness, some means by which Venus might yet be saved. To many great and seemingly impervious men had the Captain seen fall to believe that this atrocity from the deep was more graced.
Then he saw it. The huge, hulking eye. Infinitely black, blacker than a night sky without stars, sunk into the side of the squid. Living in the deepest reaches of the deep, deep sea the squid needed this gigantic pupil in order to see any of the minute rays of light that could permeate to such depths. In those depths, the sea was as black as this hideous eye.
With a grace and fluidity reminiscent of that long ago day when he delivered his speech on this very deck, the Captain moved across Venus as though it were simply an extension of himself and he knew where every crease in every floorboard were. Almost instantly he came to what he desired. He hurled the first spear, and it struck the squid just above the eye. Adrenaline and excitement had given him unaccounted for strength and he took an imperceptible moment to breath deeply and steady his heart before his second throw.
The second spear struck with deadly accuracy and pierced the great eye. Pain unlike anything the squid had ever known coursed through all its limbs and it convulsed and shuddered, its limbs reaching into the sky once more before plummeting to unseen depths.
Just before it dove back under the sea to whatever hole or abyss it called its home, it tore at the air with an horrific screech, a sound meant to carry over long depths in the deep ocean, not to be sent over the soundwaves of the air. The piercing cry pained the crew of Venus, and set them free.
The Captain stood silent, heart racing, chest heaving, among the smoldering ruin and carnage of his ship and crew. Venus was crippled.
Adams’ face was solemn and grave as he approached the Captain on the deck. All about them the crew was working to patch up the failing ship. The squid had mangled much of the vessel and had left little material untouched, which meant that it was very difficult to repair the rents that had been made to the planking and deck and hull of Venus. She was wounded, maybe mortally.
To Adams it fell to bring the concerns of the crew to the Captain. But they were his concerns too. Responsibility dictated that Adams act in the best interest of his crew, and he had done so thus far with minimal strain. There were more than grumblings among the crew about the Captain’s style of leadership – or his absence of any of that indefinable stuff – but Adams had soothed them well while keeping to himself the fantastic nature of the Captain’s true goal.
The Captain was no easy man to speak with, particularly when so much would be on his mind as now. But Adams was no coward, nor would he shrink from duty even if he had not believed that this were the right thing to do. He approached his superior officer with quiet, cold calm.
“Sir, the men have reported back to me on the damages that Venus has sustained. Her situation is graver than we had thought.” The Captain stared back unflinchingly. “She is riddled with holes and fissures that we do not have the supplies to seal; her sails are torn – in some places the rents are larger than the patching material that we have – and her rudder appears to have sustained enough damage to make maneuvering extremely difficult. It is a small miracle that she is still afloat,” he paused before adding, “Sir.”
The Captain’s frame remained facing Adams, but his eye quickly glanced across the deck, over the desolation of the squid and the fragments of his crew and ship. Adams thought he noticed the Captain’s eyes move quickly to the sea and the horizon before once again settling on the eyes of his first mate.
“Patch what we are able, make sure that she is watertight no matter the cost. She will not sink.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll have the crew continue repair–”
“We continue moving west, or as close as we can figure under these stars. The compass was lost, but not all sense of direction.” He turned and walked from Adams, heading towards his cabin.
For a moment a stunned silence filled Adams’ ears and mouth. Finally, he spoke.
“Captain, you cannot be serious.” The sound of incredulity was rich in his voice. “The ship is barely intact; she cannot survive much longer in open waters with no hope of aid or supply.”
A brief hesitation held the Captain for a moment before he wheeled around and was standing tall and fierce before Adams. He spoke with a voice like embers; slow and hot burned his words. “Do not tell me what my ship can or cannot do. She is mine. She will not sink.”
All of the confusion and questions about the Captain’s judgment that had run through the crew came to Adams’ mind at that moment. “What of the crew then? They are yours by title but their lives are not yours to take. We have lost enough already. These men have families; wives, children. They have much to lose and it is not your place to take it from them.”
“Families, wives, children!” The Captain was irate now. He did not bellow and kept his volume low, but the embers in his tone had burst into a flame that was pouring out of both his mouth and eyes. “Do not speak to me of such things as families, wives and children. There is more to lose here than their lives. There is always another crew in the harbor. There is too much to lose out there,” he pointed out at the great expanse of sea, “to turn back now. We go on. We do not turn back. Ever.”
“You are mad!” Cried Adams, through gritted teeth. Even in his rage, as all the long build up of frustration and confusion ran over his bounds, he kept his voice down; he did not want the crew to know that there was conflict between himself and the Captain. “You would kill these men, you would forfeit their lives, lives which are not yours to give, so that you may make your mad run at the ends of the world! An end which you will never find and will surely perish in searching for!”
The Captain was incensed. “To what doom will these men come, Adams, if we turn back now? They will go home, they will live out their lives with their wives and children and then they will die. They will die as every man who has ever come before them. Their children will weep, but even they will forget these men in time.”
“You cannot take that away from them because you think it–”
“I offer them more. I offer them the chance to be remembered. To find something that no others have found.”
“You do not offer it, you demand it! They will die out here, Captain. They will die!”
“Maybe so. And in death they will be greater than they ever could be in life. I offer them remembrance. Legend. I offer them immortality.”
With a slackened jaw, Adams stared at the Captain while fires raged in both their eyes. When he spoke, his voice was slow and calm. There was understanding in his voice. “You are mad, then. You have lost your mind. You would drive us all to death, and yourself last of all. You search for immortality, but you cannot find it out here. You run from your fears, but they will find you. You will die, coward.”
Burning like the slow and steady flow of molten rock from a volcano, the Captain stared back at Adams. Everything in the world seemed to await his next move. Would the floe catch wood and burst into flame or would it slide into the sea, to cool again? All the world hinged on this event. His body relaxed, releasing the tension that had held it for so long now. He turned without speaking and retreated, with quickened steps, to his cabin.
Adams brought the crew to him on the deck and began planning the mutiny.
“He will not give up Venus willingly, she is all that he has.” Adams spoke to the crew on the deck, feeling no need to maintain secrecy and knowing with confidence that it was the last place that the Captain would want to be. Adams was their leader, but others among them had more experience with conflict and the strategy of a coup. Wisely they planned, and Adams insisted that the Captain not be hurt, for, “his danger is in his mind, not in his hands,” as he told the men. They would imprison him within his quarters, if possible, and otherwise be forced to lock him in the brig.
The plan was taking fine shape, and all were intensely attentive to the speech that flew from each other’s lips. So intense was their focus that they did not notice the black clouds that began to dot the southern horizon.
In his cabin, the Captain sat thoughtfully at his desk, occasionally rising and pacing before taking a seat on the edge of his bunk and then repeating the whole process over again.
“They think I am a fool,” he said to himself. “That a madness has poisoned my mind; that a fire has burned me from the inside out. They will come for me soon.” He ran his fingers along the worn and stained map that sat on his desk. His calloused fingertips rode over cities and ports, trade routes and islands, always passing over the name of a thing rather than the thing itself.
There was no word on the map that he considered synonymous with home. Venus had been his home, his love, his life. Nowhere did he belong but with her on the sea. “They do not understand,” he told himself as he thought about what Adams’ had said. He thought of what it would be like: returning to a familiar port, to faces that he would know, that would know him.
“So often I have traveled from shore to shore,” he softly ran his fingers over the creases of his desk and then the planking of his walls, “at last I have found a safe harbor.”
Adams would not let another lead the group that headed to take the Captain. He had taken complete control of the crew, they followed his orders exactly now and would acknowledge no rule above his.
At the conclusion of the mutinous planning, Adams had noticed the clouds coming from the south, but they were moving too quickly to be completely avoided now, considering the shape that Venus was in. He was worried about the storm, but the clouds were not strong enough to push the conflict with the Captain out of his mind.
Orpheus at his side, Adams marched with singular purpose across the deck and down into the cabins. He would see this plan to the end and Venus would be his. Not for personal gain or for glory, but for the crew, for the safety of these men whose lives he was charged with, whose deaths he would not bear.
Anger pulsed through all his veins. Of all the fuel and fire that raged inside of him, the hottest was his anger for the Captain. The Captain had betrayed him. He had trusted the Captain, had trusted him with this crew, with his own life even, and this is how that trust ended. On a ruined ship in a turbulent storm, all that trust had died.
Yet Adams did not think the Captain a liar or false in anyway. But he did not trust his judgment, he did not trust in the character of a man who could act so foolishly. The pain that he felt came from knowing that he had once trusted that same character so soundly; he had once put all his faith in the quality of that man. And his faith had betrayed him. The circumstances did not matter. It fell to Adams to make things right, and on that his mind was singularly focused.
“I should not have to be doing this,” he thought, as his steps moved him down the corridor to the Captain’s cabin.
Venus was rocking on the waves as they grew larger. Her battered frame did not hold the same integrity that it once had. As thunder clapped and lightning struck, Adams realized that he had spent too much time planning to defend himself from the Captain, and not enough defending himself from the sea.
The storm struck with the force of cannon fire before Adams had even made it to the Captain’s quarters. Immediately, Adams knew his mistake. “I must be on the deck,” he spoke to those with him, “we must save the ship.” With urgency he turned and ran in the direction from which he had just come.
“What of the Captain?” he heard Orpheus shout to him.
“Let him be,” Adams replied, “he is no threat to us now unless he is in league with the sea.”
In an unbearable moment, Adams’ words reached those in the hall with him and they knew him to be right. They fled up the stairs after him.
On the deck, Adams led the crew as they frantically tried to turn back the force of the storm. The Captain left his cabin with slow and deliberate steps. As he stepped to the deck, he was surrounded by flying water on all sides and above him an ominous sky belched forth thunder and lightning. The wind nearly tore his overcoat from his frame. He began to move silently towards the wheel.
A huge wave tossed the ship and threw the Captain across the deck, from the portside to the starboard. The main sail tore as it was being drawn up. Above the cacophony of the storm, Adams’ ragged voice could be heard screaming orders to all that could hear him as he mounted one last effort to save the dying ship. Then the mast snapped and came crashing down, rending the ship nearly in two.
Venus would be lost. There would be no saving her. This was her grave. These thoughts pummeled Adams’ mind before he finally accepted them and began trying to evacuate the crew.
Across the deck, the Captain stepped into Adams’ view. None of the other men noticed the ghostly man in the long coat as he walked with sure and steady steps across the ruined deck, but the vision haunted Adams and he could not turn his eyes away.
Thoughts of rage and revenge, forgiveness and providence all raced through his mind, rattling his focus and slackening his hands. But then the storm shook him once more and Adams returned from the deep labyrinths of him mind back to the present. He looked once more to the Captain and held the sight in his eyes for a moment but, when the Captain did not return his gaze, went back to the task at hand.
He, and all the crew that could fit, manned the few small rowboats that had been spared from the squid and the storm. Through turbulent black waters they paddled, pushing their weary bodies beyond the point of breaking. They had little hope of survival.
On the ship, as all the world around him fell to pieces under the mighty power of the sea, the Captain stepped to the wheel for the last time.
The swells of the sea moved about him, deep blues and blacks swirled beneath while towers of frothing white rose above. Aching and sputtering, Venus was crumbling to bits. All the crew, in their small boats that seemed so insignificant amid the epic power of the sea, were trying to find their way among the storm. Surrounded on all sides by death, there was no little to no hope in the black depths of their eyes. Theirs were the eyes of men who struggle both in their world and in their hearts. How does one reconcile the desire to live with an acceptance of death? They were strong and hardy men, but they were not saints. The Captain did not see them.
In the middle of this watery Hell, he stood amongst bits of the ship that he had loved, floating in the sea that he called home. His hands on the wheel, he stared out at the abyss that was opening before him. A mirror it seemed. Cold and grey, the face of the sea stared back at him, a gaze that his unflinching eyes returned with love and acceptance. Slowly he ran his worn and calloused hands over the chipped and knobbed wheel.
Water crawled up his legs as Venus slipped further and further into her icy grave. It wormed between his fingers as he held the wheel. “Her cold hands take mine…” he spoke the words aloud, but no one would hear them over the roar of the raging sea.
Creases, the marks of age, ringed his eyes as the water rushed over them. His face was free of the tension that had marred it of late.
Beneath the waves his hair wove a tangled web, like the reeds and leaves of seaweed. His legs stood up from the now vertical deck, two small masts bearing a great sail. Behind his pursed lips, behind his birdlike smile, were the white teeth of a shark. And in his eyes, as in his veins – the vast system of rivers and oceans that moved the world of his body – was the dark grey of the sea, where light faded with each and every inch. Under his brow were two portals to the world around him. His very eyes were made of the sea; of the brine and rising swells.
He did not smile, for he found no joy in death, only the acceptance of the inevitable and the comfort of leaving this world in the company of those that he held dear, his ship and the sea.
“So, this is how it ends,” he thought, as the water filled his lungs and the shimmering light above him vanished into unforgiving black, and so sank forevermore into the impenetrable, unknown depths of the sea.
In a tavern in a small harbor town, twelve men sat around a great table, drinking. Years of saltwater and sun had weathered their faces and wrinkled their hands, but they were study men, of heart and of hand.
“He was mad though!” exclaimed one, with beer running through his beard.
“No, no he wasn’t.” The others around the table quieted at the speaking of this man, who, though he was no longer young himself, was younger than they. But the respected him, one and all, and would listen to what he had to say. “Maybe for a fit, with the madness and rage of loss or defeat, but all men lose their heads in such places.”
“But you said it yourself, back then!” The words were crooked and frayed as they passed through a mouth with fewer than all its teeth.
“I did. But I was a fool then. I was young and I was a fool. I did not have the wisdom to see the truth hiding in his words.” He paused and swallowed, though no beer or food was in his mouth. The others awaited his speech in anxious silence. “It is a strange world that can take so much from a man and yet give him so much at the same time.” Another pause. “He was a good man. He should have been a bird. To fly alone on the wind, unfettered, with no tethers or chains…” his voiced dropped off into the dim silence of the dark room that surrounded him.
One of his companions broke the silence, “Are we still talking about the same man?”
The younger man’s eyes bore into those of his drunken friend with sobering effect until, after the smile was wiped from the drunk’s face, he released him from his stare. “Would you remember either way?”