Fata Morgana

The ocean has always loved fiercely, violently, and without reserve.

This was the truth Orell Aldwin first learnt, long before his hands folded with age and the softness of his heart had grown callous with the ebbing passage of time. He was a sharp-eyed boy of nine when the Muirgein parted the blubbery waters of Falken; a behemoth with heightened masts and ghostly-pale sails that fluttered like a flag of defiance as the wooden bow slit the neck of the perilously narrow coast, that cresting shadow set ablaze by the mournful light that beckoned from the shore past the crowned rock teeth. 

Like the boy, the bulbous sea stacks simply watched. It too had little to speak as the belly of the craft cut itself open in lacerations, pushing past that unforgiving tide, and almost tricked itself into believing that the black that bloomed in turn beneath the waves was nothing more than the trickery of childish whim. Astern, the dotted silhouettes of what must have been men moved in the dark, clothes slick and disgruntled in the pouring rain, worn boots beating the rhythm of sounding war drums in the horizon. 

The old island wharf awaited the spectre, and it was through the lens of a dream that it came to rest against the vicious ground – the beached carcass of a man-made whale against the glistening sands. It glided past the glittering handfuls of bone-white specks and gristle beneath the distant moon, the shallow water of the tide pools splashing and quaking beneath wooden flesh.

Not one of those feet aboard touched dry land, nor was there any attempt made for the concealment of this fact. Instead, the stagnated bulk loomed, as weathered as its appearance had boasted to that iron resolution, in defiance to the will of God or the devil amidst the typhoons and stillness of the ocean that carried it afar from shore to shore. Or perhaps the birth of its unnatural demeanour knew something of the vessel’s lineage – serpent-offered seeds beyond the order of the natural world. It yielded little else.

Apparelled like a creature brought fresh out of purgatory, there was a distinct melancholy in the warm breath it brought ashore, shifting sea winds dragged in by the gallowing sails. The open bulwark was much like a jawbone removed from the skull, garnished with wooden pins and stakes upon which hempen veins ran through base blocks of wood and draped across the slanted deck. At the helm, a sported tiller rising up in fierce steed, pliant beneath the ramrod shadow of its commanding helmsman rendered faceless in the night. It beckoned.

Orell was at half-height, a slip of a child next to the sturdy pillar of his father. His gait lagged as he trailed behind those sharp, assured strides down the carved rock steps to the sea-front. The sand itched and pried at his bare feet as handfuls billowed like a spray of fine mist, disturbed by the tread ahead. A bag slung across his curved shoulders, bent with the burden of a life stowed away within fine leather, and simply what he wore upon his body. It was infallibly light compared to the heaviness within his heart – a churning stew of anticipation and fear, stubbornness and tears. The group of islanders, numbering amidst the range of seven or eight, cut off the view of home and kept his eyes darting forward, palms sticky with sweat and soil, as he tried to match pace.

The climb was silent. He was nearly entangled upon the rope ladder lowered upon the start of the ascent, bare palms and skin whipped smartly as his father hauled him upright with a thick hand by the bunched fabric of his scruffed neck. No words exchanged, and none needed. His senses were illusive – made irrelevant as the wood creaked like trapped thunder within the hull, his small body swayed in the insatiable sea winds, and his face no longer upturned towards the comfort of the stars but to the nameless, faceless shadows of men that watched with gale-ridden scowls.

Once aboard, he clung like a limpet, a barnacle, to the only familiar thing he had left.

There were eyes on him. He wanted them all to disappear. He wanted to slip within the afternoon fog and allow it to consume him. He wanted to return back home, to his room with its oil-wick lamp and single window overlooking the thick of the island’s green, overflowing scalp. Drawn within a tide, he strained to listen to anything else but that oppressive silence. It haunted him, that sensation of being watched – of being known and flayed alive where he stood, ripping through the ocean’s worth of a life the thoughts and secrets and memories as the hooks and nets trawled and piled the cacophony of consonants behind his scraped teeth.

He gasped, barely audible, as the pressure swelled a hair’s breadth.

He was pushed forward. It took him a moment to realise that he’d been betrayed – and by his father, no less – as the last vestige of his illusion of sanctuary crumbled away. Crouched upon the deck in a facsimile of parity, given away by the loose-fitted yet rich colours of the cloth the grizzled man wore so proudly, was a sun-tanned face illuminated by the elusive flicker of the yellow lantern flames. The man lowered to his level, not for Orell, but rather to strip away the concealment of his face. The presence of authority was abundant in the way the crowd parted and gazed upon the scene – no longer drowned in passivity, but rather all snapped to attention at once.

“He’s got a good head on ‘im shoulders.” His father replied. “I’ll make ‘em behave.”

The Captain exhaled the tickle of a derisive laugh. He stood once more, and beckoned Orell’s father past the towering masts and nearly to the edge of the deck. The rest of the group that had followed them aboard kept their eyes averted and jaws set firmly shut, too cowed to do little else but defer. The Captain rested his hands across the rail, nearly possessive as his nails stroked the tarnished wood. “What do ye see?”

“Water.” Answered his father. “The horizon.”


Quieter, “The seabirds have abandoned their nests.”

Captain Raukar smiled, as he always did with a whale pierced upon the harpoon. “As do we all to survive.”

The seafaring vessel made good time with the winds that travelled down from the east. Sauntering away from the island like an animal gorged in the thick of night, long before the early rays of dawn pierced the cloud cover, it plunged blindly with an expert hand into the charted waters of the lone Atlantic. Past and present diverged here; no longer did the clockwork of land and sun dictate any hand, but the promise of sea and storm. With the savage bows thrust into cold, malicious water, the Muirgen sailed into a shivering omen of an approaching season that spoke of frightful weather.

Captain Raukar continued to command the deck with full ease, steadfast even in the midst of rumbling discontent, none so whatever trace of concern leaked from the worn lines upon his features, nor did he betray any hint through the commands he spoke over his furthered crew. The unorthodox route chartered unbeknownst to every soul but his, and little else could be done to guess the rhyme or rhythm of, except to accept as is. Orell watched as his father and the rest of those from Falken took to learning the commands and nuances of sea life, through thick or thin, learning through welts and scorn and the occasional grudging approval. He was not exempt from paying his portion due, yet found an unexpected salvation to waste away the long afternoons.

Old Scratch, the Captain had named him so. 

Call me Scratch, lad, the second mate of the Muirgein had offered, in its stead.

Like the rest, he towered over Orell. But his eyes… they seemed kinder than most. He was uncommonly soft-spoken for a seaman, yet his refusal to speak easily stemmed more from a process of thoughtful intelligence rather than intimidation. If he hid a soul of welded iron, it was a thin veil, for on occasion, the mirage sparked like a sputtering match held above a sloshing oil drum. He smoked on occasion, and it was by smell that his presence would introduce itself. It was an effective marker far more than any approaching footstep or glimpse. 

It would be many moons past, when the thought of warm, warbling weather would cease to exist beyond memory, that Orell found that he had formed ease in the companionship with the elder sailor. It worked in his favour that he was a quick learner – although he would never learn that part of this affection came from the fact that Old Scratch still grieved his own lost son – and he was indulged in scaling up the Jacob’s ladder to the Crow’s nest. The ship bobbed on tumultuous waves, yet a hand always steadying his footing, as he lost his breath to the expanse of sea that stretched out far beyond the horizon. He was taught to observe, much like Old Scratch had done once before.

A rash of days elapsed. The galley dwindled in the later hours of night, and even if there were no hardtack or salted meats to serve during this time, he was attached to the quiet and relative shelter it afforded him. His teeth had become slightly sore, and the gums bled as frequently as his stomach roiled with hunger. It was a strange, pitiful experience – to force himself to become accustomed to the acrid taste of fermented vegetables or the dryness of the biscuits. He had been rebuked when he brought this matter up to his father.  Little else could be done but preserve in a voyage that was meant to last close to another two months.

He slipped out of the galley and was about to return to the berth of the ship where the others no doubt lay in varying states of sleep, when he caught sight of something that made him hover warily near the threshold. A small light blazed from the Captain’s quarters. Orell had done a remarkable job making himself scarce in the stretch of time since that first night. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew that it was something primal, an animal urge, impulse, that itched at the back of his skull. It was that same sensation that overrode him now, invisible strings pulling him along, and he watched in horror – more of a spectator in his own skin than anything else – as he skulked closer to that grimy light. His breath left marks, an evidence of hot breath and stains, hitched against the small window.

Through the glass, dirty and unclean, a figure moved within the bowels of that room.

Over the ivory in-laid table, beneath the muted painting that covered the wall, he did not see the Captain first but rather Old Scratch who appeared in some manner of distress. To and fro, he paced old rounds around the cramped length of the space, his fingers twitching as if shocked repeatedly, and then he turned to address another out of view. The Captain stepped into the light, as passive and controlled as ever, but for the storm building in his eyes. A tacit bitterness passed between the two, before the Captain dismissed the first mate entirely.

It was a mercy that Old Scratch saw Orell through the glass first, for the boy fled at that very second, but not before he too saw the older man lift something discreetly off the desk and into his own pocket.

The expression in Old Scratch’s eyes every time he looked at Orell after that was entirely akin to sepulchral.

Another year sailed past. His tenth birthday came and passed with little fanfare. He had grown nearly two inches taller, and lost what remained of the baby fat that clung to his face and flesh. He was lucky, he supposed, that it was not a matter of thinness that plagued him, but simply a sort of condensation of man – his skin hardening to adapt to the conditions, his body reliant on what he learnt as habitually ritual. His skin tightened to a close fit, and although he still swam in the loose, overgrown clothes being passed down, parts of him had filled in.

The Muirgein slowly swept across the ocean, from port to port, and with every stop and departure, Orell felt less the pull to dry land. The appeal had been lost, among many other things. He pondered if he should mourn that loss, much as he did with his life back on the island where he’d been born and raised and had once thought would die and be buried on that same comforting earth. He looked to his father and realised he recognised lesser by the day – features warped and aged, demeanour tuned to another chord, and every scrap of spoken word made guttural and harsh in survival. The desperation of childish love had waned. He did wonder what he, in turn, had become. 

That final voyage aboard the Muirgein that signalled the beginning of the end came nearly three months after Captain Rauker made the decision to steer the ship south-eastbound from the Cape, launching boldly into the deep to be lost in the harbourless immensity of the growling swathe of the sea. Touching port on one of the smaller fishing towns, the supplies were restocked and the sails mended, before the Captain disembarked alone and returned a sparse few hours later with a large parchment and an unnerving glint in his eyes. Bloodthirst, it ought to have been, for it cannot have been anything other than the declared engagement of a hunt; pistols and knives whet against flint and grindstone.

Old Scratch’s agitation was clear as day, but it was only much later when the ship docked on the next island inlet and a large hunting party of around thirteen men in all were sent out alongside the Captain – with Orell’s father amongst them – that the first prickling of unease even thought to set in, for it was a full three days that the men had ceased to exist before movement along the treeline had alerted the second mate to their return. Underneath the light of the full moon, pupils wide and enlarged, a strange feverish excitement possessing each one, they carried lamps and heavy chests and barrels close to their hunched bodies.

Like silent, enraptured ecclesiastics laying the incense of prayer before the altar, the men moved as if of one mind, stepping recently up the gangway with their arms full to lay what they carried beneath deck. Orell watched, unmoving and still, and the vibrations of the planks beneath his feet shivered with the ensuing thumps and footsteps from the depths below. His father did not even deign to spare him a glance as he slipped past, the sinews and muscles of his face twisting into something harsh and unfamiliar, and in that one moment, he had become a part of those nameless, faceless things in the shadows.

Captain Raukar was in an exuberant mood. Within his hand, he held two fist-sized glittering stones cut in the shape of circles, as brilliantly red as the finest merchant’s cloths, made exalted by the moonlight that trickled and shone within. He held it up and smiled with teeth, yellowish and rotted in comparison, all the more a striking contrast to the marvel he had now had in possession. It stood out all the more, even against the thick coat of blood that stained his hands, drying and fresh and dark all at once. 

“God help us.” Old Scratch muttered, brokenly, even as gold shuffled like a waterfall. “God help us.”

Consumption was a matter of when and by whom. Often, it was even the undoing of one’s own self from the inside out, an unravelling of threads and tapestry colours to the bare bone, then discarded and forgotten. Physical hunger could scarcely hold a candle flame to certain matters of madness. In the days that followed, Captain Raukar would often boast of plucking the jewels from the sockets of the idols that the savages had worshipped. He would speak of taking what was owed, and barely blink at what he’d done to achieve those means, his dagger vicious in the blood shed for all to bear witness to. None possessed any lucidity of mind to protest otherwise.

When the first mate had turned up in the brig with both his eyes gouged out, the Captain saw it as a taunt and turned around to execute the Quartermaster accordingly.

That was not the last incident.

Many succumbed to that same fate, plucked off like lagging prey creatures separated from the herd in solitude, only to come awash upon the decks or beneath in assorted positions of death, skin clouded grey as the skies in terror, weeping blood down slithered trails past the cold flesh of the cheek that pooled to the planks in an irrevocable stain. The sockets gaped as hollow a pit alongside the row of touch holes where the cannon flares lay in wait; once the blood cleaned, the scratches human in origin, in nature, matched the nails of the succumbed and told to be clawed out by hand, yet the grotesque marbles of the eyes itself remained lost, no matter how frequent the decks were searched and the Captain in his increasing paranoia ordered it so.

In the end, it was Old Scratch that most likely saved Orell’s life. The man had always known more than he let on – of human greed, superstition, or even the faintest idea of what exactly it was that the Captain had crossed that day when he had slaughtered the remaining priests of Mykor. Perhaps the motive was selfish in kind – with the knowledge that his own time would have drawn to a close, had he stayed. That very night, he’d convinced Orell to step onto the rowboat under the farce of examining some issue or other, and then he’d cut the ropes that bound them to the main vessel. The splash of the short drop had been barely audible layered with the desperately drunken brawl from within. 

Orell would have fought. He would have screamed and howled into the night sky, if not for one thing – the moment that his father had materialised above, looking every inch the sojourner in a strange land, and a clear light in his eyes that cut as deep as a blade inside of his son. He mouthed his farewell, a cruel cross between relief and the closest thing to tears glittering within his eyes, and then turned away for the final time. Old Scratch had his arms around the boy as the shock subsided and he sobbed noiselessly.

Have courage, son.

It was the seabirds that brought the pair back to land. The specks that circled above the sea came in a great flock, their distant cries and squawks deafening in the earliest hours of the morn; the occasional few dove into the sea, black, beady eyes alight in purpose as it pierced the surfacing fish within insatiable beaks. The white wingspans ruffled in the salted sea breeze as it seized the currents and spiralled upwards back into the expanse of the open sky. The oars of the small craft splashed downwards as in that direction, they began to row. 

The Muirgein never docked on any port again.

Decades later, Orell would look out over the horizon, and realise that he would never stop seeing the mirage of that wretched ship – a behemoth with masts and white sails fluttering in the breeze, a wooden bow and stern parting the waters, that cresting shadow lit by both the sorrowful light of day and night, with no cessation or reprieve in between even as it learnt that it could never again breach the shore. Not a soul would tread upon those decks; the ship made restless in death as in life.  The boy-turned-man would taste grief, and then be ashamed in his yearning for a time where his small feet had run those decks and his body had made itself anew amidst the endless sailing.

And he remembered that time when all the world had condensed, as thick as the afternoon fog, into the embrace of the ocean that would never cease to relent.

Written By: Trishta
Edited By: Poorani

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