Cathay

The cabin boy looked down from the crow’s nest, trying to make out the shapes of waves breaking against the ice floes in the fast-encroaching darkness.

“There’s nothing to see down there.” The old sailor muttered from behind an ice-flecked beard. “It’s too dark.”

“I liked it when it didn’t get dark all night.” The cabin boy blurted out, after a few seconds.

“Yeah, that was nice.”

“Is it true that the Sun doesn’t come up all winter as well up here?”

“That’s right.”

The old sailor pulled his cloak tighter around him, as the wind began to blow harder and colder from the frozen ocean.

“I can’t wait to get to Cathay.” The cabin boy said, into the wind.

The old sailor didn’t answer. He probably hadn’t heard.

“What do you think Cathay’s like?” The cabin boy continued, not put off by his companion’s stern countenance.

“Dunno. Never been.”

“I bet it’s amazing.”

“Yeah, probably.”

The cabin boy stopped talking, as if trying to think of something else to say. The old sailor was humming something, low and vague and tuneless. The cabin boy looked down again but in vain now, for the night had wrapped around the ice floes and the sea and the ship.

In the crisp moonlight, the old sailor pulled a piece of dried fish out from somewhere inside his cloak, tore a piece off, and began chewing, loudly. He handed a piece of his fish to the cabin boy, who tore at it with his teeth like a dog playing with a bone.

The sailor went back to humming his incoherent dirge. The wind was quieter now and the creaks of the sailor’s lips became one with the creaks of the ship far below, its anguished groans and pitiful sighs, heard by none but those within.

The cabin boy yawned, and a big cloud of his breath condensed in front of him, before disappearing into the night.

“Tired, huh?” The sailor observed.

The cabin boy nodded.

“Same.” The sailor continued. “But it’s too cold to sleep.”

The cabin boy took a gloved hand out from inside his cloak, and an absent-minded finger began rubbing abstract, swirling patterns out of the frost on the mast, sparkling in the moonlight.

“Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?” He said, suddenly.

“Yeah, I have.” The Sailor responded.

“What’s it like?”

“It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like anything else you’ll ever see.”

“Where do you think it comes from?”

“Dunno.”

“I hope I get to see it.”

“Don’t worry. You will. We’ve got a long winter night coming.”

“It’s my birthday in a week.” The cabin boy came out with, out of nowhere.

“Is it now? Well, I’ll remember to say Happy Birthday to you then.”

“Do you think we’re almost in Cathay?” The cabin boy asked, unsticking his glove from the frosty mast.

“Dunno. There’s no charts out here. Nobody’s been here before us.”

The Arctic wind had sent a great mass of cloud in front of the moon and right across the sky, and now the only things an eye could anchor on were the torches on the distant deck, before endless unknown and icebound darkness.

“Is it true that in winter all the sea up here freezes totally solid, like rivers do, and it doesn’t thaw for months?”

The sailor said nothing. He probably hadn’t heard over the wind and the waves. The cabin boy kept talking anyway.

“But we’ll be alright. We’ll find some land and wait for it to thaw and we’ll keep going to Cathay. We’ll be alright. Won’t we?”

The wind had picked up again, stronger than before. The cabin boy sunk his chin down into his coat.

“Won’t we?”

The crow’s nest swayed, the great oak beams moaned, and the unseen wind shrieked in the masts and hissed in the rigging, tearing across the unknown ocean.

The Experiment

“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”

The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.

“What is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on his sword’s elegantly-crafted hilt.

“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”

I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.

“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”

I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.

The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.

“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”

My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.

On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.

“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”

A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.

“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.

“This is what I brought you here to see.”

“What are you keeping in there?”

“Take a closer look.”

I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.

There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.

As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.

He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.

“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.

“What are you doing?” I responded.

The King of the Germans turned to the servant.

“How’s it going?” he asked

“It’s going fine.” The timid servant replied.

“How long do you think we have left?”

“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”

Frederick continued, casually turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”

He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.

“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”

Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.

“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.

The Leviathan

An abridged version was entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2019.

The whale had appeared on the beach that morning. I think it was Patience Scott who saw it first, just as it was breathing its last, wheezing breaths out of its blowhole, abandoned by the waves along the strip of sand between two headlands towering above the sea.

Almost the whole village had turned out to help drag it off the beach. The harvest had been poor that year, but now we could feast on this extraordinary prize all winter. Tobias Earnshaw had let us use his barn, in the field by the beach, to keep out of the rain during the grisly task of butchering the carcass. Even Malachi Thorpe, who’d been sacked from Mr Earnshaw’s farm a few days ago, and John Wickham, who’d been arguing with him about some money he owed, were welcome today.

The leader was Nathaniel Crawford, whose cousin had gone off to Greenland on a whaling voyage, and who claimed to know what he was doing. He inspected the carcass, checking how everyone was doing, with their knives or axes or saws. Tabitha Holdsworth sat on top, hacking away slices of blubber and throwing them down to a grease-covered Harry Stobbs, who in turn threw them into a precarious stack, until he was beckoned away. Anderson Cockroft stood at the Sea Monster’s vast and bloody mouth, methodically sawing away the fibrous flaps that lined its jaws.

Apparently, they’re called “baleen”, and they’re what corsets are made of. Whales have them instead of teeth, and they use them to filter out the tiny creatures they eat from huge mouthfuls of seawater. There were probably 3 or 4 people in the village who’d ever worn a corset, and certainly nobody knew how to make them, but that hadn’t stopped Nathaniel from handing the 19-year-old farmhand a saw and telling him to get to work.

I don’t think he’d actually spoken to anyone all day, but he seemed happy enough, stinking of whale slobber.

Someone had found an old, rusty harpoon buried in the whale’s thick and clammy skin, that had grown around it years ago. It had been propped up carefully at one end of the room, where the workers occasionally walked past and admired its antique, exotic grandeur.

At sunset, Andrew Metcalfe’s son, who had been sent to fetch some lamps, ran into the barn shouting something incomprehensible. Nathaniel strode over and bent down to listen to him, before following him back out into the twilight.
Work resumed, with some of the other children returning with arms full of candles and lamps that bathed this terrible beast in their light and shifting shadows.

When Nathaniel returned from the dark, he climbed on top of the whale.

“Listen!” He shouted.

There was silence. Nathaniel had that effect.

“Tobias Earnshaw has been murdered!”

The silence became even more silent, before collapsing into a chorus of muttering.

“This was found by the body!”

He pulled a blood-stained butcher’s knife from inside his jacket and brandished it with theatrical relish.

The workers clustered around the head, upon which Nathaniel stood, dispensing justice as if from the mouth of this ancient creature of the deep, that mouth which had tasted the distant saltwater among the scattered atolls of South Seas and among the ice floes of the High Arctic.

“Tabitha Holdsworth! Step forward!”

The crowd parted and Tabitha gazed up to Nathaniel in his cetacean pulpit.

“I put it to you!” Nathaniel bellowed in the most legal voice he could muster, “That you were in possession of the knife that was used to carry out the murder of the late Tobias Earnshaw!”

“I was, sir.” Tabitha responded, meekly. “But it were here until the break. I couldn’t find it afterwards, and I’ve been here the whole time since.”

The crowd murmured assent. Nathaniel allowed Tabitha to fall back, and shouted again.

“Did anyone see anyone going out of the barn since the break?”

The crowd muttered and scuffled. Eventually, four people were pushed forward towards the whale’s jaws. There was Malachi Thorpe, John Wickham, Bethany Coulson, and on the end was Anderson Cockroft, fidgeting and looking anywhere but up to the Judge.

“Can anyone vouch for these people’s whereabouts at the time in question?” Nathaniel asked the crowd.

Harry Stobbs spoke up. He’d seen Malachi leaving the barn, but all he’d done was had a piss against a nearby tree, and then come straight back.
Malachi was removed from the list of suspects and allowed to merge back into the crowd.

That left three.

John was first before the Inquisitor’s scrutiny. He stepped forward, hands in his pockets, and looked up to Nathaniel’s stern face.

“Mr Wickham, were you responsible for the murder of the late Mr Earnshaw?”
“No, Your Honour,” he declared.

“Can you account for your movements at the time of the incident?”
“When I were out, I were just taking some fresh air, round the back of the barn, with my little flask of rum. It’s right smelly in here. I weren’t doing any murdering.”

A voice from the crowd suddenly shouted out.

“He owed Mr Earnshaw a fiver!”

“No, it were a tenner!”

“It were just two pounds!”

The Judge intervened.

“Silence! Silence! Mr Wickham, I put it to you that you did owe to the aforementioned Mr Earnshaw the sum of five Pounds.”

“It were a tenner, your honour, but I swear to God I’d never have murdered him about it.”

“Mr Wickham, that is all.”

John returned to the line. Bethany was next before the Leviathan’s weathered visage.

“Can you account for your movements in the interval in which it has been established that the aforementioned murder of Mr Earnshaw occurred?”

“I just went out for a walk, you see.” She said sheepishly. “I know you all know I’m next to inherit his farm and all, but it weren’t me who did it, I swear.”
She was dismissed and Anderson was summoned, bowing his head as Nathaniel towered over him.

“Mr Cockroft, are you able to account for your movements at the time in question?”

Anderson stared down at his boots. He looked up as if to speak, but then back down. The crowd began to stir.

“What were you doing at the time of the murder, Mr Cockroft?” Nathaniel declaimed again. Anderson remained silent, and looked around and then back to his greasy boots. The murmurings of the crowd grew louder.

Seeing what was going to come next, the Accused seized a hatchet that had been left on the floor close to his feet and darted past the huge and stinking beast, round its great, two-pronged tail and out into the murky night, waving his weapon at of anyone who tried to apprehend him.

It had started raining again, hard. There was no moon, and beyond the flickering circles of orange light from our lanterns, nothing could be seen. But still we searched, as the killer had to be brought to justice.

We’d reached the top of the cliffs, with no sign of our quarry, and the darkness was beginning to fade into twilight, when I saw a swinging lantern and heard, among the roar of the waves far below, a breathless voice coming up the hill.
“I did it! I killed him!” Malachi shouted frantically, between wheezes, as he approached.

We stopped. Malachi was bent over with his hands on his knees.

“He sacked me from my job on his farm. I couldn’t handle it and I just… went for him. I threatened Harry that he had to say what I were doing. But I couldn’t stand back and let you come after that boy. I couldn’t live with that.”

He stood with his back to the Edge, above the distant foam, as the Sun rose on the sea revealing, on a ledge halfway down the rockface, the glinting blade of a hatchet.