Issue #79

Summer 2021

A Sea Voyage

by Brian Biswas

The storm had been building in intensity for a long time. Far too long, the sailors thought. The ship would have to give at some point--and probably soon. The old square rigger rocked fore and aft, tossed by twenty-foot waves like a cork on the ocean. The torrential rain had long ago drenched everything in sight, the winds having swept away all unsecured objects. The captain, however, appeared unconcerned; indeed, he seemed not even to be aware of the storm! A giant of a man, with a round face and puffy cheeks, yellowish hair and fiery light-blue eyes, he swaggered up and down the deck like a carnival barker, all the while shouting orders to his crew:

"Rip that sail! Lower that mast! Crowd that boom and bring her astern! Scrub that deck--yes, you Powderboy; scrub it hard--hard till it leaks! Catch that crow! Squawk that fish! Feed that gull with a broiled salmon and make me a coat of fine Persian leather! Move it boys; we've no time to waste. Hey, you! Yes, you with the hammer--let's move it--pound the bulwarks--beat 'em to a pulp--beat 'em till they're fine as gunpowder. And you! Powderboy! I said hammer!--hammer that deck till she springs a leak. You in the crow's nest. Yes, you Crowboy!--let's not dilly-dally! Look to the horizon!--And watch out for the enemy!--We can't be caught with our defenses down and our bulwarks open. Now wait! What's going on? We're off course! Helmsman!-helmsman!! The ship is drifting--due to your bungling. I said hard--hard--hard-a-lee! You men! I never said you could rest. Let's move it; back to work. I want to hear ribs cracking, backs breaking! We're not running a carnival. Let's go!--hey, sailor, off with that straw hat. Wipe that smile off your face. All of you! I want to see frowns, hear curses,--break your backs! Doughboy!--Jettison that bilge! Let's move it--I've got a ship to run--and to run soundly. Helmsman! Let's try it again. Hard-a-lee!--"

But in the end it was the storm that gave way (or was it only a lull before the final, cataclysmic event?). The captain looked fore and aft, surveying the damage to his ship: the yardarm of the mizzenmast, having been snapped by the wind, had fallen onto the captain's cabin, smashing the roof to pieces; the rigging of all three masts was in tatters, the sails ripped to shreds. The ship's rails were twisted into grotesque shapes and in several places had been sheared away. Pools of saltwater were everywhere. But did the captain realize what had happened? Apparently not: he made no comments, gave no orders, concerning the storm's destruction; instead, he approached the tiller, pushed the helmsman aside, and with his right index finger began steering the ship, absent-mindedly, this way and that, like a crazy buffoon!

Just then one of the sailors uttered an excited cry. He had spotted a waterspout churning on the horizon. It was shaped like a pillar with ropelike tubes extending horizontally like the arms of an octopus. Its blue gray funnel was the width of fifty ships--and it was drawing near. Shouldn't the captain be worried? Soon the ship might be smashed to bits and they would perish. Wasn't there something the captain could do?

"Heave the anchor, sailor!" replied the captain. He gave control of the tiller to the helmsman and started back down the deck. "Heave it with a grin! And you--Powderkeg--unfurl the sails! Raise the masts! Free that boom! C'mon sailors, let's move it! Pound the decks! Climb the rigging!! And you--helmsman--set a course and abandon it! Crowboy!--watch for gulls! Let's glue our eyes to the sea!"

"What's this?!"--The captain had stumbled over some rope coiled on the deck--"What's this?! A dead man?? Impossible! Hey you--Doughboy--what's a dead man doing aboard my ship? Heave him overboard, I say! Heave him with a grin! Into the mouth of the ocean. I'll have no dead men aboard my ship! Hey you--Powderkeg--that mast is crooked! Straighten that mast!"

One of the sailors, ever obedient to his commander's orders, however absurd they might be, picked up the rope and cast it into the sea. And then, like a lemming, the man cast himself into the sea, and quickly disappeared beneath the waves. But no one paid him any mind. In fact, the rest of the crew seemed half-asleep: strange, silent men lost on the deck of a ship that was itself lost at sea. Perhaps it was the heat, or the eerie green sky, or the feeling of doom that hung over the ship like a fog, that caused their soporific state. Or perhaps it was the captain's lack of direction in dealing with the crisis at hand. "Heaven is upon us! Heaven is upon us!" they cried. "Fear not, ye men of little faith, for Heaven is upon us!"

And you watch it all, from the confines of your cabin, in disbelief and with mounting fear; this is not what you expected to find on your first sea voyage. These are not seasoned professionals delicately guiding the ship through changing waters, over troubled seas; but poor charlatans, crazy hucksters, inept bunglers, unable to live much less pilot a ship, and it is all you can do not to burst into tears, to keep your face pressed against the port hole, to hope against hope that, yes, the gods are looking favorably upon you this day, and that somehow, someway, you will make it safely into port.

Author Bio


Brian Biswas lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His work has recently appeared in Antipodean SF, Perihelion, and Cafe Irreal. His first novel, The Astronomer, is forthcoming from Whisk(e)y Tit Press in 2022. His short story, "A Betrayal," was published in Issue #11 of The Cafe Irreal (as well as in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader); "The Room at the End of the World" appeared in Issue #14; "The Bridge" appeared in Issue #18; "In the Garden" in Issue #33; "The Last Photon" in Issue #37; "It's Not What You Think It Is" in Issue #47; "Prologue to an Imaginary Book" in Issue #59; and "Hoag's Object" in Issue #72. We reviewed his short story collection, A Betrayal and Other Stories during Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe in 2018.