Foundering

The Foundering

by Tim Rico

The Foundering
Troppo corso acque in più gentilmente ora
Piccolo vaso del mio talento alza le vele,
Lasciando dietro di sé un mare così crudele;*
Purgatorio I, 1-3

One day (some time ago, but I know not exactly when) in a bid to escape the many creditors who seemed to form an endless line outside my chamber, I found myself wandering for a considerable amount of time streets of the utmost obscurity, without purpose or direction. Eventually, I stumbled upon a booksellers shop and it was here where my life would begin its dramatic transformation. A book caught my eye. Why or how this extraordinary event occurred I cannot know. The book’s cover intrigued me. It was a blend of crimson, brown, and orange with a wooden sailing ship in the background. The title of the book and its author were immaterial to me. The book’s cover bewitched me as if it connected to the deepest depths of my immortal soul.
I secretly purloined the book and made good my departure and returned to my chamber. There, I immersed myself in its story of adventure on the high seas, en route to the Congo River in deepest Africa. The sea has many voices for a troubled soul; it is within us, but it is also surrounding us like a vast rocky landscape envelopes the fortress of an early medieval castle. As I read on, I felt I could hear the yelp and howl of the sea, as a man hauntingly cries and struggles in his death agonies after being mortally wounded by his hated adversary on the battlefield. A truly powerful and eerie sound, one that I would have preferred remained forever absent from my consciousness.
I should mention that my mood had been bleak for weeks, as I had been lamenting the death of my dear friend Roderick from causes unknown. For months though, I had not felt that my life was worth a day’s purchase. My loneliness seemed to have become deeper, more intense, while my wanderings became more frequent yet aimless, as if I was overcome with a somnolence akin to mesmerism. To those around me, however, I seemed gallantly and thoughtlessly alive.
One night (as was becoming increasingly my habit) I was again restless and could not sleep. I dressed and left my small apartment and ventured out. As I proceeded down the eerie causeway, a street lamp muttered and sputtered like a prizefighter in the late rounds whose energy and vigor were slowly dying. The night was dark, lacking any stars, but a large robust super moon was present in the sky unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was held in its lunar synthesis, and it seemed to cast a luminescence over the water that was as sinister as it was sublime. Still its beauty was lost on me. The sea looked blacker than the sky against it, and the soundless air seemed as if it was weeping softly among the trees. Being midsummer, the night was warm yet dry, and I walked slowly along the trampled edges of the street. I continued down to the dock as I spied a vessel about to land and unload its cargo. Near me a tree swung slowly despite the distinct lacking of any breeze. It all seemed so very unnatural.
While I was so disposed, I noticed that several dark figures had exited the customs house and appeared to tally up the cargo as it was unloaded by the roustabouts. As I sat watching the commotion on the quay, my mind brought me back to my childhood. I had always had an allure, some might say an obsession, for maps and all things geographical. I remembered I would spend what seemed like hours looking at places in South America, Africa, and Asia. Africa held a special fascination for me. “When I grow older, I will travel there,” I would hear a voice from deep within me say. For a moment, yea only a fleeting one, I became lost in the memory, and in that graceful moment my melancholy lifted and drifted from me, far away; as if it no longer acquainted itself with my immortal soul. “Goddammit,” I said to myself, “they must need hands on board ship; and wherever their destination, it must be finer than my current tenancy.”

While I contemplated the opportunity that seemed to be presenting itself to me, I settled myself on the grassy hill adjacent to the dock and watched as the wooded galleon inched its way toward the quay. It had, I thought, the peculiar resemblance of the ship on the cover of the book that curiously resonated so strongly with me. Strange, I thought, that a galleon, which is normally furnished with arms, would be transporting goods to my small provincial hamlet. As I watched the ship tie up to the dock, I suddenly noticed a small black cat sitting but a few feet from me, washing herself tenderly and rolling in the grass. The cat was small, very thin, and seemed obviously homeless. To this I felt a kinship, since although I resided in my own small apartment, I was lost and seeking a direction with which to relieve me of my lingering despondency. Even though I felt a kinship to this poor dumb animal, I could not help but notice it seemed happy and content as it rolled and pounced in the grass. Suddenly, she looked in my direction and seemed to notice me watching her, for she stopped her contented play and sat up staring directly at my face. She walked cautiously towards me and then sat down again.
I turned my head away and began watching the activity on the dock once more. I could hear the hands cursing and moving about as they continued to unload their mysterious cargo, when, without warning, I found the cat in my lap and looking straight up at me. Slowly, I began to caress the animal gently. Her dark, plush fur seemed as soft as velvet, and in return she began to purr and rub against me. Our interaction continued for quite a while, and I was beginning to develop a genuine fondness for this poor creature. She seemed to lift me from my despair, as the prayer from a priest would soothe a weeping widow upon the death of her love. I even contemplated taking the poor creature back with me to my chamber.
Then, for I know not why, I suddenly began to develop a dislike for the animal. Her eyes became a sinister yellow color; her fangs became heinous and evil looking; as the large eyeteeth seemed to double in size before my eyes and were marked with a scarlet color that I could only assume was blood. It was as if it had transformed to a malevolent predatory animal; like the many that had frequented my nightmares. It was at this precise moment that a sepia fog approached from behind me and engulfed me in a gossamer haze that persisted for an imperceptible period of time. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the mist was gone.
Amidst this eeriness, I ogled the cat with the same menacing look I felt it was giving to me, and I suddenly noticed it was lacking an ear; and I felt a strange yet overpowering sense that this creature was the embodiment of evil; sent to me like the serpent that slithered in the garden, plotting and exacting the fall of Man. Sed et serpens erat callidior cunctis animantibus terrae quae fecerat Dominus Deus**.  I wanted to torture and kill this cat with every fiber of my being! I became terrified of this…thing…that morphed in front of my eyes and became unimaginably grotesque. I feared it would take possession of my immortal soul and then kill me, subjecting me to the deepest realm of hell, to dwell with Satan and his choir of fallen angels for all eternity! This sudden and gnarled transformation of the creature caused me to flee and run as far from it as I could. I sought refuge some distance from the quay and soon found myself hovering behind a yew tree to gather my racing thoughts. “I must find sanctuary from this demonic creature,” I thought terrifyingly to myself.
Without warning, something overtook me. I seemed to have had lost conscious control of my thoughts and actions: I would stow away on the ship as if it would take me away from my present terror and melancholy; and transfix me somehow to a place of uncanny bliss and joy. I wandered casually aboard without neither notice nor care from the crew or roustabouts. I soon found a place on deck with which to hide. I was fortunate to conceal myself in the prow of the ship under a heap of extra sail near the bulkhead that separated it from the main galley. I remained hidden there for I know not how long. Yet, I continued to watch the activity around me with wonderment. Why was I here? I contemplated more than once, resigning myself to my aforementioned, and known fate, rather than continue with this salto-morale. I allowed myself, though, to wonder what their precious cargo contained, and why it was being unloaded with such stealth and guile. Soon I would discover the identity of their dark treasure.
At some point I found that the ship was preparing to cast off. As we inched away from the quay and into the shallow harbor I looked back at the land. The super moon illuminated the landscape in a way that rendered it completely unfamiliar. Yet, instead of the usual beauty one expects when glancing upon land from the sea, all I saw was a cavernous wasteland as if enveloped within the confines of Hades. We proceeded for a distance from the harbor and headed out to sea.
Under the continued cover of darkness I set off to explore my prison to tranquility and happiness. I knew that life on board a galleon can be particularly unpleasant. These vessels were known to spend long periods at sea amid poor conditions. Galleons have relatively large active sailing crews compared to other vessels, yet, I realized I would have to come forward to an unassuming member of this ship’s company, trusting him to provide me with food and water, or remain hidden and likely die of thirst and hunger. After a day or so at sea, I cautiously began to move about the ship to acquaint myself with its surroundings, and to seek out a trustworthy crewman who would not lead me into the dark abyss of betrayal and a slow, agonizing, and certain death on the grim seas. As I carefully moved about the ship under the darkness of night, I stumbled upon what appeared at first to be extra sail and rigging packaged tightly and covered with a dense black cloth I assumed to be canvas. Alas, it was arms and ammunition stowed in a fashion where the attachment and loading of the guns could be done with the utmost ease and rapidity. This suggested a motive of the most dark and malevolent character. This galleon, I thought to myself, must be carrying a cargo of tremendous worth, which has as its accompaniment extreme danger, ranging from pirates or other marauders to bands of savages and mercenaries. I was soon to realize that my greatest fears would be contained within the vessel itself.
I was fortunate enough to remain undetected as I snuck furtively around the somewhat large vessel. I took a moment to gaze over the side and I felt a sense of peace as I tasted the salt in the air and filled my lungs with its freedom. Suddenly, I felt a jar. It was slow and grinding, as if the hand of Poseidon was drawing his mighty finger along the hull of the wooden galleon. The entire ship seemed to shiver and groan violently until the sound finally died away. “We must have run aground,” I thought, as I noticed that our forward momentum seemed to slow fleetingly before seeming to resume its normal rhythm. I expected some activity from the captain or crew in response to this jar, but I saw nothing; no ghosts coming forward to sound the ship for any damage. “How careless and irresponsible,” I thought, as something clearly befell the ship as we moved to deeper waters. The ship must have been damaged. I felt I was now in peril!
I took it upon myself to sound the galleon without notice. As I delved deeper into the bowels of the ship I encountered what I assumed to be the ship’s brig. My purloined book did not mention a brig and I was not sure such institutions existed aboard ship, but my curiosity pulled me towards the tall and evil looking man that was contained inside. He was as surprised to see me as I was him. I approached this dark and dank dungeon with the utmost caution and care as I feared not only my discovery but any evil that was contained within. The air within the room was thick and heavy. It had the distinctive malodorous scent of death; like blood, but more of the metallic taste and smell that was contained within the blood that gives it its distinctive odor. But it was more than that. The fetid smell of thirty or forty unwashed men could not be ignored, and this stench seemed to become more concentrated as I ventured further down into the vessel. The whole scene smelled like death; death, waste and darkness. I began to retch as I descended to the bowels of this vile ship until I could retch no more.
The prisoner (for I know not what else to call such a man confined) was the oddest looking creature I had ever seen. He was exceedingly tall; standing no less than six and one half feet, yet his legs were exceedingly squat and bowed giving his body the appearance of being dumpy, thick, and rather unwieldy; in his shoulders he displayed a pronounced stoop. His nose was immense and hooked; his eyes were large, white and menacing; his arms, however, were unusually short and thick. But it was his face that struck me as being the most eerie and unnatural. His nose, while immense, seemed buried in the vast mass of flesh that seemed to envelope his round, full, and purple face. His chin receded into the bulbous mound of flesh and his thick upper lip rested oddly upon and even thicker than one beneath it. His countenance displayed a sinister sense of complacent satisfaction. He stood motionless at the back of his cage and stared menacing at me without saying a word. His gaze was penetrating yet lifeless, as he seemed to be staring right through me like I was not even there. I beckoned to him, asking his name. He withdrew and said nothing. Suddenly, and without warning, he seemed to begin uttering in rapid succession a sequence of the most wild and fiendish shrieks that I felt no earthly being other than I had the terrifying circumstance to experience! What’s more, his lips did not seem to move as he shrieked and wailed!
I betook myself abruptly from his chamber of internment and continued cautiously on my explorations while wondering why this creature, if accused or adjudicated of having committed such an egregious crime that warranted confinement, had he not been transferred to civil authorities on land while the ship was being unloaded? I was fortunate enough to make my way to the deepest recesses of the galleon where I noticed a tear in the wooden skin of the ship. It ran intermittently, like the buttons on the finest waistcoat of a cultured gentleman. Notwithstanding, I found a considerable amount of water had entered the ship and was beginning to gather around the steps I used to descend deep under the ship’s forecastle. It was at this moment that I discovered a noticeable list to the starboard side of the ship. I now knew my life was in danger as we now must be far from land and in very deep water.
I returned to the brig and found the ghastly hand much as he was, except he was sitting up against the back of his cell. This time he spoke:
“I am Marlowe, Who are you?” Before I could answer he continued.   “And what are you doing here?’ he asked in a cadence reflecting a flattened affect.
“My name is Kurt and I have come aboard to escape my loneliness and worries, I want to start my life over some place,” I replied. For the moment I ignored the conspicuousness of his confinement, choosing instead to focus on my own agenda. “Where are we headed?” I asked with a tepid interest designed to mask the fear I was now feeling about my current situation; and that I felt I was now mad for acting so recklessly by boarding this ship in the first place. He failed to answer me directly and I was just about to repeat my query, suspecting he had not heard me, when I was suddenly startled by the sound of the howling wind, followed by the crashing of a swell over the forecastle. As I looked in the direction of the crash, I heard him say we were sailing back to the west of Africa.
“We are most likely to be journeying back to the Congo,” he replied, “as we are involved in the illicit ivory trade.” I turned back to face him upon hearing the reply and, as during my initial encounter with him, I was drawn to his very odd-looking face, but now, as before, it seemed unmistakable to me that his lips still did not seem to move as he uttered his response!
Suddenly, I heard the sound of what seemed to be chaos from above deck. We both looked up in response to the mayhem. He said nothing. I volunteered, “The ship had been damaged, I fear badly. I found a gash below the waterline. That must be the crew investigating the grinding jar that just overtook us.” As I looked back at him, I suddenly noticed his face seemed no longer purple, but rather, it now acquired the distinctive color of yellow; like corn, ready for harvest, or as the sweetest saffron from Morocco. He still retained all the grotesque features as I previously described except for the color of his fleshy and obscene mouth. I encountered the fetor of decay and rot, and I was unsure as to its source. Without saying another word, I took my leave of him and ventured cautiously above deck to see what was happening.
I made it to the main deck amidships and was lucky enough to remain concealed under auxiliary rigging that was used to secure one of the lifeboats. The sea had definitely become restless with waves crashing into and over the starboard side of the ship with rapidity. The seditious gales swelled with haste as mighty Poseidon blew at the deceitful sails, causing them to tear from their mast. I no longer felt confident that the vessel would be my deliverance. Instead, I feared I would be thrust into the abyss and lost to the deepest recesses of the ocean.
The ship now had a noticeable list and the bow had begun to dip down toward the water. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, the brute from the brig appeared on the deck!   He moved with ferocious and frenetic incongruity, as a chicken that had lost its head to the farmer’s axe. My attention soon drifted from his erratic and disconsolate movements back to the greater terror at hand.
The deck was listing sharply to port by this time and we were profoundly down at the head. It was now obvious that my life was in great peril! Without raising his voice above the disastrous din, he beckoned me to him. I chose to ignore this hideous specter of humanity and remain adept to my own strength. I watched as panic began to overtake the crew and I began to hear a thunderous crash that rose above the din of the sea and its storm; and I noticed a myriad of objects belonging to the ship fall from their positions and go tumbling into the abyss, forever lost to the world. Amid the chaos, men were swept into the sea by the fallen debris and were pulled down; down where the worried bodies of drowned men drift down in the green silence, dropping from fingers of surf. Down, deep to their deaths, as the great suction began its deathward whirl and twirl.
I began to take matters into my own hands in an attempt to survive this catastrophic turn of events. I was able to procure a large piece of wood that appeared to be from the roof of the galley, and hoist myself upon it. I was able to float it off the sinking galleon without incident, and I felt my sigh of relief as I prolonged my misery a while longer.
While I was lying on my sanctuary of survival, I paddled furiously away from the death ship. I could hear the wailing and crying of the hands as they succumbed to the current of Poseidon, and gave up their ghosts to the abyss. I took a moment to look back to the ship as it took its final death plunge. The rigging had all but disappeared in the sudden violent storm, and the stern rose out of the water straight to the heavens as if it was asking forgiveness for a crime against the Almighty. From the periphery of my gaze, I noticed a number of the roustabouts swimming toward my sanctuary. Fearing they would swamp my lifeline, I fought them off one by one; leaving them to the torrent of the angry sea that also seemed to be slowly stripping me of my life.
Abruptly, amidst the mayhem, I spied the brute struggling in the water. He was making his way toward me. For some reason, I felt a sudden kinship for him. But, for some strange reason, I lacked a feeling of kinship for his fellow deckhands. To this moment I cannot ascertain why. Against my better judgment, I extended my hand and assisted him aboard my present drifting piece of salvation. We both watched as the mainsail and the stern of this once great but seemingly malevolent ship sank beneath the waves. The suction seemed to pull us toward and down to the great abyss. Suddenly the brute’s countenance transfigured to a creature foreign to my experience; he became neither godly, nor evil! Yet, at this precise moment, the suction reversed and pushed us back up to the surface and away from the carnage above. As if moved by the hand of God, we were suddenly thrust away from the torrent into a sea of relative calmness. How unnatural!
Once the horrible din of drowning and dying men died away (as they succumbed to the dreaded maelstrom), and the sounds of the moribund galleon died away, I took a moment to gather my senses and consider my current situation. I could, if I wished, end my misery by allowing myself to succumb to the turbulent suction and embrace the bleak and dark confines I was sure would capture my immortal soul, or, I could pray to the Almighty to ensure my deliverance from my present peril and resume my previous existence.
Suddenly, a third option presented itself to my consciousness: If I killed the brute, I could assume him! I could embark upon a fresh life, absent of any previous torment. But murder? Was my situation so hopeless that I should resort to damned murder of a figure whose transfiguration suggested a divinity that was foreign to my soul? Unexpectantly, a spell fell over me. It insulated me from the din of the dying ship with all her hands; save for me and the brute whose appellation was Marlowe. I reached into my pocket for the knife I had procured from my own chamber and meant for my own protection, or final demise, and without hesitation, I slashed his ear almost completely off. Then, before he could react, I plunged the knife with a deep penetrating hatred into his neck!   The blood spurted and gushed violently from his mortal wounds. Then to my sudden horror, I became instantly overcome with a multitude of rats that seemed to rise from his deepest entrails, and scramble from his gaping neck! Frantically, I flushed them off my raft into the sea; to drown, and keep their evil from infecting my person. The battle seemed endless, but finally the last of the vermin were vanquished to the depths, down to the deep to die with the galleon and her sailors. I pushed the now lifeless brute into the sea to sink away to oblivion.
Exhausted, I awaited my salvation. Within a day it came in the form of another ship bound for the Indies. I was rescued from my wretched experience, and embarked upon a new life among the British ships destined for the sacred ivory that lives within the deepest of Africa. My true identity, now a ghost, lurks only in my dark and desperate mind.

*To course across more kindly waters now
My talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
Leaving behind herself a sea so cruel; – Dante

** Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made –Latin Genesis 3:1

About the Author

Tim Rico

My name is Tim Rico. I am a neurobiologist living in Sudbury ON Canada. This is my second piece of short fiction and is written in the Gothic Horror Tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and E T A Hoffmann.