And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay
That made the breeze to blow!
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)
They had embarked upon the poles of the sea, carrying strange cargo. The wealthy aristocrat – a spoilt lord of some distinction – had paid a great deal for this living, breathing consignment.
An exotic menagerie of rarity and curiosity. Among the growling, screeching treasures kept below deck were such ferocious beasts as Bengal tigers, lions and a white rhinoceros. There were a number of zebra, gnu and a solitary female panda bear.
There were peacocks and parrots and sinister looking raptors – and in a great steel cage – a single motionless albatross lay in a large heap of crumpled white feathers, stretched out across the bottom of the pen in shallow water. The beautiful gooney-bird of the Pacific was stone dead, and the elderly Captain of the ship looked upon the disheartening scene with dismay.
“When did you find it?” he asked of the first mate, a large bald man; a man red of face and short of humour named Mr. Glass.
“Some of the men shown it to me, sir,” answered Glass, standing ankle-deep in sea water beside the large cage.
“‘Bout two hours before we started taking on water.” Something unseen roared from deep within the foundering hold.
“Who is responsible for this?” The large bald man shrugged almost apathetically, but his eyes were wide and flickering with panic.
“I don’t know, Captain.”
Seabirds, particularly the striking albatross, were long said to carry the souls of sailors blown down by time on the bounding main. It was considered terribly bad luck to cage such a creature, but to kill one, by God such a ghastly thing could prove fatal to their voyage.
Its large pink bill and pink feet lay motionless in the water. The bird’s round eye was black and vacant, the violent winds of its soul extinguished. The Captain could see his reflection in that silent darkness, a silhouette perturbed, staring back at him.
“Superstitious much, Glass?” asked the Captain quietly, unable to tear his gaze from the dead bird.
“Some,” answered Glass.
The Captain nodded grimly. They had been forced to make port hastily when the hull was inexplicably breached and the cargo holds began to flood with water. The ship had begun to heel by the time they reached mooring in a friendly bay, heeling quite badly, and some of the animal cages had come unfastened and overturned.
“Get those up,” rumbled the Captain, pointing into the darkness of the hold. A long cage housing a pair of melancholy llama lay on its side. The unfortunate creatures inside were crouched uncomfortably in their disproportionate enclosure.
“And there, and there,” he said, pointing and pointing. “The rich bastard will have our balls.”
Glass whistled loudly, piercing the damp quiet which had fallen over the hold, and two disheveled men rushed down the creaky stairs into their midst with a splash. While the first mate barked his orders at the men, the Captain turned slowly away.
Still, he found himself unable to pry his vexed gaze from the lifeless albatross. Just as the ill-starred narrator of the Ancient Mariner, the Captain could almost feel the awesome weight of that large, dead bird around his neck, pulling him down into a chasm of aching culpability.
“Glass,” he muttered, and the first mate turned. “Find out who did this, yes?”
“Yes, sir,” said Glass, nodding solemnly, and turned his attention back to the capsized llama cage.
The Captain gradually backed away through the water from that ominous sight, and at a certain moment, he fancied a brief flash of light in the late eye of the albatross, as if an enraged soul had struck sparks from hellish flint.
Cast into the outer darkness, into the furnace of fire. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. From faraway across the briny deep, strange sounds emanated on the wind and carried all the way to the Captain’s cabin. The racks in the crew’s quarters were empty – all save the bravest and blameless of men had abandoned ship.
They had entered the Port to seek comfort in the embrace of alcohol and the dock-whores – whichever found them first. They feared superstition with the deepest kind of fear, but dreaded by far more, the Captain’s retaliation.
A storm was brewing this night, stirring through the clouds above. The night ain’t filled with gentle things, and when the Captain lay woke and restless in his berth he lay with his limbs dangling over the edge – to let the monsters know he was willing.
For a long time, he could not slumber. The haunting eyes of the wandering bird and the howl of thunder were as barbs in his cot.
At last, he fetched his bible from the cabinet beside him, to seek solace in the old weather-worn pages – as he always did in times of dread. Fear could keep a man from rest all through the night, but faith, he found, made a fine pillow.
In the case of the Ancient Mariner, the Captain viewed the visiting albatross of Coleridge as a symbol for Jesus Christ. When stranger tides befell the narrator’s ship, and the storm destroyed all, the albatross appeared as a good omen, saving the ship and leading them back onto the right path.
Just as the narrator shot the good-spirit down, Judas Iscariot turned Christ in to the cross, and both – in their own ways – were weighed down by the crushing weight of guilt. For a long while the Captain lay pondering these seemingly radical ideas, finding comfort in the scriptures that sought him out.
When finally he dozed with the book open upon his heart, he dreamt of hanging by his neck from a tree in the Field of Blood, and then later the limp albatross hung from his. He dreamt of strange ships pulling alongside his own, out there in the dark waters, and upon these ships writhed unimaginable devils.
He dreamt he was Noah adrift at sea, carrying with him a rare and curious menagerie to a rich and spoilt god of some faraway land… And when the dove returned to the window of his ark it was not a dove, but of course a dead-eyed albatross – and it carried not a freshly plucked olive leaf but a set of dismembered fingers.
Suddenly, the Captain woke from his feverish nightmares as a violent gust rocked the ship in its mooring. The ship was heeling dangerously to the side, creaking and groaning in the wind. Outside in the storm, he could hear his man Glass bellowing over the whip-crack of lightning.
There was a deep roar, too, hollering high above the stampeding feet of the remaining crew. The Captain knew the nature of that roar, and he knew it well. The ship was on fire, and simultaneously taking on a deluge of black water through every crack and hole.
There is but one place in this savage world where man is guaranteed to find the face of God –this the Captain believed doggedly – and that place could be found out there beyond the shifting horizon of the wild blue yonder. Out there lay the edge, and there were precious few moments encountered at sea where one could sail upon it at the mercy of the wind.
In those unnerving moments a man could feel the presence of his Maker. As you neared the brink, there were moments where you knew with certainty–you were either going to push the bastard right over and into the mouth of the unknown–or give madness one more kiss upon the lips before pulling back.
The Captain often wondered, as he did now, standing upon his fire-blackened deck in the pale morning sun, just when the final kiss would come. When would they lean too far and go ankles over into the maelstrom?
“The jib boom and bowsprit are gone, sir,” reported Glass quietly. The red-faced man was drenched in blood and sweat and salt water. He looked a wind-swept wretch, that Glass, a dog whipped by flame and rain. The Captain ran a hand over his tangled grey beard, looking out over the burnt deck. The pale morning sun molested every puddle with splotches of ghostly light.
The foremast had been split by lightning, and most of the rigging had burnt away. There were two large holes in the hull, but after a night of heavy work, breaking their backs, stretching the limitations of man, they were able to right her and bring halt to the flooding of the lower decks.
Every man remaining now lay on the flat of their backs with their mouths hanging open and their muscles twitching. Every man save the Captain and his first mate–and how they managed many of the men wondered.
“See to the repairs, my good man,” said the Captain, and Glass nodded exhaustedly. The first mate was long past the point of his reserves, and what manner of fuel the man now burnt to stay upright was anybody’s guess. The old Captain looked out across the deck strewn with what remained of the crew.
“We must away at first opportunity,” he rumbled. “The rich brat waits impatiently for his zoo.” Glass nodded again, too tired to speak.
“Have you rounded up the crew? Have you found the man who killed our sacred albatross?”
The first mate’s shoulders sank and his heavy eyes scanned the rise and fall of the curved horizon. He slowly shook his head from side to side.
“I will, Captain, I will.”
The first people on earth were also the first sinners.
The Captain sat upon the stairs leading down into the hold. There was no light, save for that which spilt across his back and that which burst through the large hole scuttled into the hull near the bow. He could smell the smoldering ashes of the ship.
He ran knotted fingers against the wood. Ships were like whores, thought the Captain, the older ones didn’t always look like much, but they knew how to look after you.
He could hear the sickly, frightened beasts stirring in their cages, but not a sound did any make. When the light caught them just right, he could see their green and red eyes glittering from the dark. They were looking down at the same horror he was – the bloating albatross settled dead at the bottom of its cage.
From time to time they looked up at him, their Noah, and perhaps they too were wondering the same strange thoughts as he. The remaining members of the crew, they had taken to calling this bird ‘the dead man’s tie’ in hushed tones. Dead Man’s Tie. The Captain’s Noose.
Only the maddest of men would sail upon these adverse tides, held only to the promise of riches. Just what in the blistering hell was he going to do about this dreadful curse?
Glass rapped twice upon the Captain’s door, and then opened it to step inside.
“The crew refuse to return to the ship, sir,” he reported. “They won’t sail aboard a cursed vessel, they say.”
The Captain sighed. He sat by the window looking out at the dimming sky and the wine-dark sea. Below, weary men were hammering at the ship.
The wind roared, and so did the cargo. The dead albatross shook in its pen with every reverberating thud. The tigers threw themselves at one another, mad with rage. The hoofed beasts of the African plains kicked and gnashed their teeth, gnawing on their iron bars and on each other.
“They should have nothing to do with irrelevant myths,” said the Captain sternly, “But should instead train themselves unto godliness.”
The words he spoke were from the good book, which sat beside him at the table, and though the Captain trusted in their veracity, in truth, his own sailor’s heart found it all a little too sordid to drum to.
He too believed, deep down, that any wind foul enough to carry this ship forward from now on would sooner wreck them upon the rocky shore of a cannibalistic island than secure them safe passage to a hefty payday.
A near-sinking, an unforgiving storm and a mysterious fire–freak occurrences of nature–too bizarre and successive to be coincidence. It was only a matter of time before one of those striped monsters broke loose below deck and began to eat people. The sails would run red.
Men would throw themselves overboard into open waters. Any man aboard this ship was shark food, until he–the Captain–could right the wrong and lift the dreaded curse of the albatross.
“Have you found the reprobate responsible for the deed?”
Glass shifted his weight, arms clasped behind his back, head bowed low.
“The men who found the bird say the creature had choked to death on the broken neck of a rum bottle,” answered Glass, “But the man who fed the bird cannot be found.”
“You mean nobody is talking.”
“No, sir,” confirmed Glass. “The men respectfully request their wages, Captain, and wish to take leave of their service here at this Port.”
“By hell,” said the Captain. “You go and tell those mutinous bastards, Glass, go and tell them if they wish to collect their wages there will be penance to pay – lest the coward responsible come forward.”
“What manner of penance, my Captain?”
“One hundred lashes upon each back!” yelled the Captain furiously, “Such is a fit punishment!”
“You tell them, if wages they desire, they will return to the ship at dawn for their flogging,” yelled the Captain, now upon his feet.
“Fetch the cat, Glass. Lashes they shall receive! One hundred lashes! Lash upon lash till the murderer steps forward, or by God, till the albatross flies again!”
Word spread like fire along oiled rigging, it exploded upon the docks and brothels and taverns as a barrel of gunpowder kissed by a rogue spark. The word was this – the Captain would administer the lashes himself at dawn with his cat o’ nine tails.
The nervous stowaways numbered in the seventies, and the one thing to break the anxious mood among them was a thought whispered amid themselves in hushed voices – could those old arms still deliver seven-thousand lashes on an empty stomach?
That night, once more, sleep was hard-earned by the Captain.
When he dreamt, he suffered visions of a white albatross and the Devil playing cards for his soul and ship. They had killed the good-spirit, as Judas had done, as the Mariner had done–and now this vessel was without Christ or heading.
He dreamt of Cain and Abel–of sin and punishment and regret. He dreamt of black tips punctuating the azure. A steady glide into empty vistas, as white headed stallions charged the shores below, sweating salt.
In his cot he threw to and fro, restless, perspiring, tossing and pitching to the hammer-falls and the thunder and flapping of wide, white-feathered wings. Those wings beat a hurricane, beating all around him, until the beating at last became the knocking upon his chamber door.
It was dawn.
At daybreak seventy-three men lined up along the pier and the docks and the deck of the ship. Gulls stormed the rising sun, screaming violet and fuchsia across the cloudy sky.
The Captain stood ready in the shade of the quarterdeck with his bible tucked beneath his arm, theatrically unfurling the stained leather thongs of the cat o’ nine tails. He was watching the men as they fell into file, unsmiling, and none among them would meet his steely gaze.
“What manner of man would do such a hellish thing to one of God’s own creatures?” bellowed the Captain, his grey beard bristling like pine-needles in the breeze. He received no answer. He placed the bible down beside a tall jug of water upon a table.
He rolled his sleeves up to the elbows with quick, sharp tugs. Cords of muscle in his forearms glistened with sweat. Those were mighty arms indeed, observed the men quietly.
Beside him stood Glass, with his hands clasped before him and his head tilted up to the sky, as if awaiting some divine intervention – a sign to stay the furious hand of the Captain–and before them stood the wooden rack, the triangle and wrist straps awaiting the first man up for a flogging.
The nine knotted thongs of the cat hung menacingly from his white-knuckled grasp. The men shuddered visibly at the sight of them. Few among them had ever bared witness to the damage such a whip was capable of inflicting–the parallel lacerations carved into skin and flesh – but those who had, they had spoken of their experience with pure terror.
The men were in the habit of giving names to the things they dreaded most, and so too they had a name for the cat–they called it, the Captain’s daughter–and she had long been used to flagellate the wicked and ill-disciplined aboard his vessel.
And lo the first brave man stepped up beneath the Captain’s unforgiving gaze.
“Remove your shirt, sailor,” said the Captain, and the man before him did so.
Glass had never before seen his Captain so uncompromising and incensed. Never before. The Captain stood fast, nine knotted tails at the ready. He took up a steady stance, feet far apart, back straight and hard with his eyes up to the calling gulls above.
Slowly, he raised the whip, and was ‘bout to crack the first of one hundred upon the man’s unclothed back when he suddenly halted, gritting his teeth.
“Get rid of this one,” he snarled abruptly.
The astounded Mr. Glass set to it, confused. He led the fortunate man away, pale and all a-quiver, and brought the next hapless wretch before the exasperated Captain, who was too made to remove his shirt. The man waited with trembling hands upon the rack.
The Captain looked down at the man’s uncovered back; a gleam of annoyance had erupted in his eyes. His face began to redden. He shied away from the sight and returned to his bible to take a drink of water from the jug. He placed his palm flat upon the book.
“Next one!” he yelled.
Again, Glass removed this unscathed man and returned with another, already shirtless. Glass looked upon the man’s back as he stretched across the rack, and was swiftly struck with disbelief. He hid his blushing face away behind weathered hands.
The Captain turned at the table, took one glance at the man’s shoulders and yelled “Next!”
He took another drink of water. The cat o’ nine tails remained unbloodied in the crook of his arm.
Glass brought another and another before the Captain; each man removed his shirt and waited with clenched jaw and shut eyes for the lacerating crack of the whip.
The Captain dismissed every man with a scowl. The scarlet face of Glass sunk deeper and deeper into his collar. To the horror and astonishment of the elderly Captain and his mate–every single one of the crew awaiting flagellation had upon their backs a freshly tattooed crucifix–shoulder to shoulder, from the nape of the neck to the crack of their buttocks–hastily acquired the previous night.
No man of God could lay the whip upon a crucifix, and with every dismissal, the Captain felt his wrath subsiding until finally, he cast the cat o’ nine tails overboard into the lapping harbour seas. He took his bible from the table and made for his cabin.
“Glass,” he said across his shoulder. The big man turned to him, dumbstruck. “Get that rotting albatross off of my ship, and find me a braver crew.”
Jason Mykl Snyman is on a mission to find the line between not enough alcohol and too much alcohol. He’s a lot cooler online than in person, and he’s written a bunch of highly-praised stuff here and there. He lives in South Africa, while he waits for the devil to get back to him about that literary fame deal. Catch him blogging at The Strange Brontides.