The Sea Wraith, by Ashley Marie Bergner

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Publisher’s note:  We published The Sea Wraith, by Ashley Marie Bergner in Issue 44 of Aoife’s Kiss.  We hope to see more of her work in the future.

 *****

     The merchant ship Caspertania glided through the ebony waters of the ocean as wispy clouds drifted across the star-studded sky. The moon was only a tiny silver sliver, casting its pale light on the water below and reflecting off the waves. The world seemed to be covered in a thick blanket of silence, and the only sounds came from the waves lapping gently against the sides of the boat and the occasional ghostly wail of the wind—a sound that never failed to send a shiver crawling up Jakob’s spine.

He paced up and down the length of the deck, the wood creaking softly under his feet. The cool breeze tousled his hair, bringing merciful relief from the sticky, humid heat of the Caribbean climate. He could feel beads of sweat dripping down his sunburned back, and he wished, not for the first time (and certainly not for the last), he had heeded his mother’s warning that going to sea would not be quite the romantic adventure he had thought it would. He had believed that at 17, he was old enough to go chasing after his dreams, but now he wondered if he’d been wrong.

He stopped by the railing of the ship and gazed out over the water, almost lulled into a trance by the rocking of the boat and the sight of miles and miles of endless ocean, stretching to the horizon and beyond. He blinked, trying to force himself to remain awake. It was so tempting to let yourself slide into that trance, allowing your mind to descend into a peaceful stupor, but he’d been warned how deadly that could be. He had been assigned to keep the night watch, and a few moments of inattention might be all it took for the ship to run into a sandbar; a band of pirates to sneak up on them and mount an attack; or some other unpleasant surprise to manifest itself from the ocean’s dark, infinite depths.

Jakob found himself unconsciously fingering the rosary hanging around his neck (a parting gift from his mother), and he tried to ignore the clenching feeling of unease deep down in his stomach. Yes, he had to admit, of all the tasks on the ship, he liked keeping the night watch the least. Although he knew there probably wouldn’t be any trouble, there was something unsettling about standing all alone on the deck in the darkness, with only the eerily murmuring wind to keep you company. It was nights like this that almost made him believe in the strange spirits the other sailors claimed haunted the seas…

“Glad you signed up for this, aren’t you?”

Jakob jumped at the sudden sound, and as he turned around, he saw Patrick McGillin’s grinning face behind him.

“Patrick, don’t do that!” Jakob fired back, irritated the Irishman had managed to scare him so easily. Patrick was a bit of a prankster, and he took great delight in trying to startle whoever was keeping the night watch (of course, most of the sailors found this far less amusing than Patrick did).

Patrick leaned against the railing and joined Jakob in staring out over the waters. “It’s a bloody awful job, keeping the night watch,” he said, apparently guessing at Jakob’s thoughts. “I’d get a beatin’ from the captain if he heard me say that, but I think he knows everyone hates being assigned to the night watch. There’s no shame in admitting it.”

“I know there’s nothing to be scared of,” Jakob said stiffly, but to his surprise, Patrick merely shrugged.

“I don’t know about that. If you sail the seas for long enough, you’ll hear some mighty strange tales, Jakob, some mighty strange tales. The sort you can’t just explain away: weird lights where there’s no lantern or candle, or voices whispering in your ear when you know you’re all alone. There’s ghosts that haunt the seas: unfortunate sailors who fell overboard and drowned or entire crews that were lost in a storm. There’s even tales of ghost ships crewed by the damned who are cursed to sail the seven seas forever, on the watch for lost or wayward souls. Sail too close to them, and they’ll steal away your mortal soul and force you to join their crew. You’ll never set foot on dry ground again, and you’ll never be able to rejoin the land of the living. Trapped forever with the aimless undead—that’s a fate worse than death, I say.”

A breath of wind whispered its familiar, unearthly lullaby in Jakob’s ear, and he caught himself clutching the rosary again. “Ah, I don’t believe in that sort of fairy tale,” he said as bravely as he could, though he suspected Patrick could easily see past his pretended confidence.

“You sound like the captain,” Patrick said with a wry smile, taking out his pipe and lighting it. The glowing embers from the tobacco created a halo around Patrick’s face, and made his eyes shine with a peculiar and rather uncanny light. “But you wait and see, Jakob. Sailors are a superstitious lot for a reason. You sail with us long enough, and you’ll understand…”

As Patrick retreated below decks, Jakob stepped away from the railing and resumed his pacing, trying to forget about the Irishman’s ghostly story.

There’s no such thing as a ghost ship crewed by the undead, he told himself, and he took a deep breath to calm his nerves. It’s just a story, just Patrick trying to see if he can rile me. There’s nothing in it. It’s just a story…

He reached the bow of the ship and was about to turn back and make the rounds again when his eyes caught sight of something flickering in the distance. Moving back to the railing, he peered across the horizon and saw a small yet piercing flash of light up ahead. His throat immediately went dry, and he could feel his stomach twisting painfully. He gripped the railing so hard he felt a splinter drive into his skin, and he shut his eyes and turned away.

“Stop it!” he ordered himself, ashamed of his sudden burst of fear. Patrick’s story had made him overly jumpy and suspicious; it was ridiculous to assume that light was anything ghostly, and it was likely just another ship passing by. In fact, he might have even imagined the light, and there might be nothing there after all. He supposed that if he looked again, it could just be moonlight reflecting off the water.

Yet when he dared to open his eyes, not only was the mysterious light still there, floating above the water, it was coming slowly but steadily nearer. And it wasn’t the warm, yellowish glow of normal lantern light, either; it was a sickly green glimmer, unlike any earthly light Jakob had ever seen.

“Hey! There’s something in the water!” he called out anxiously, and he heard the clambering of footsteps as Patrick dashed up beside him and also spotted the strange greenish orb bobbing up and down.

“What the devil…”

Whatever it was, it clearly was not from a merchant ship. The crew of the vessel (if there was indeed a crew) had made no effort to hail them, which a friendly merchant ship would have done by now, and if they were pirates, they wouldn’t have left one lantern burning and risked giving away their position.

By now, many of the other sailors had rushed onto the deck, and they also strained to see through the deep abyss of night. Jakob knew they’d be livid if he’d called them up here for nothing, but somehow, he didn’t think this was a false alarm. The light drew nearer and nearer, and gradually it illuminated the hulking form of a vast ship drifting through the water. The eerie greenish light was coming from a lantern hanging from the ship’s mainmast. Much of the wood on the ship was starting to rot, and its sails were like ragged black shrouds, the torn strips of cloth fluttering in the wind. The mizzenmast had broken in half, and the upper portion had gotten caught in the fraying rigging. The hull was encrusted with barnacles and likely hadn’t been cleaned in months, if not years, and it seemed a miracle the ship was even still afloat. No one was stationed on the deck of the mysterious ship, and it appeared to be abandoned. A gust of wind blew across the rotten ship’s deck and towards The Caspertania, and Jakob coughed at the sudden, overpowering stench carried on the breeze. What in the name of Saint George had happened to this wretched ship?

“‘Tis a ghost ship,” one man breathed, but no one answered, all of them too afraid to break the silence.

Jakob slowly glanced up, tracing along the ship’s mainmast with his eyes, and he felt his heart begin to pound. At the very top of the strange ship’s tall mast flew a “Jolly Roger”… a pirate flag.

“Ghost pirates!” he cried, unable to help himself. He felt a rising sense of panic deep in his gut, and he had an overwhelming desire to run away from the forbidding vessel—except on a ship, there was nowhere to run. All the sailors were trembling, and Patrick crossed himself and silently mouthed a line in Gaelic, most likely a prayer, over and over again. This was like a nightmare, except it wasn’t a dream, and Jakob couldn’t just wake up from…

“What is the meaning of this!”

Everyone lurched at the sound of the loud, commanding voice, and they turned as one to look back at the captain, who had hastily thrown his coat over his nightshirt. He did not look pleased to have been woken from his slumber.

“It’s…it’s a ghost ship, sir,” Henry, one of the other sailors, stammered, pointing at the large, shadowy shape drifting before them. “It’s come to take our souls!”

The captain studied the ghostly ship in silence for a long moment, and then to everyone’s shock, he threw back his head and let out a bellowing laugh.

Jakob flinched at the captain’s unexpected reaction, and his face turned a brilliant shade of red at what was so obviously a mockery of their terror.

The captain noticed his crew’s consternation, and he gave a long-suffering sigh, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, men, I don’t mean to make light of your fear, but can’t you see how preposterous this is? ‘Tis not a ghost ship we see here before us. Haven’t you ever heard tale of The Sea Wraith?”

Jakob glanced at the side of the strange vessel, and he saw the words “The Sea Wraith” were indeed painted in white, flowing script on the wood, though this lettering was so faded by the sun and the sea it was almost impossible to read. Jakob had never heard of this ship before, and he was surprised to find the captain had.

The Sea Wraith was abandoned years ago by the miserable pirate crew that dared to sail her through a raging tropic storm,” the captain explained. “She was assumed to be lost at sea, but the ship itself was never found. It’s just coincidence we’ve run across her now. The crew of The Sea Wraith had a bloody bit of bad luck, but there’s nothing more to it than that. As I said, ‘tis not a ghost ship.”

A few of the sailors nodded, though none looked quite convinced. No one liked the sinister aura the ship gave off, ghost crew or no. Seeming to realize this, the captain motioned to Henry and Patrick, and he handed each of them an unlit torch. “Here, why don’t we put the ship to rest?” he said. “Set her on fire, and she’ll eventually sink beneath the waves, where she won’t frighten any other poor, superstitious crews.”

“Aye, sir,” Patrick said, though he looked none too eager to board the other ship. He and Henry sailed a dinghy over to The Sea Wraith and climbed up on the deck of the pirate ship. After a quick search through the ship just to make sure it really was abandoned, they set the ship on fire, and soon tongues of flame were lighting up the rotten wood. The sailors on The Caspertania eventually lost interest in watching the burning ship and dispersed, a few of them quietly mumbling that the captain could say what he liked, but spotting The Sea Wraith was a bad omen, and it was best to be done with it as soon as possible.

Jakob stood alone near the railing, silently watching as the bright orange and red flames devoured the other ship, unable to decide how he felt. He supposed he should be feeling childish and ashamed of how he had made a fool of himself in front of the captain, yet he couldn’t shake the sense he’d been right to raise the alarm. In his head, he knew he should just accept the captain’s explanation and be done with it (and also accept whatever punishment he’d no doubt be receiving); however, deep down in his soul, there was a lingering sense of cold dread. It couldn’t possibly be a ghost ship…so why did standing here and watching it burn still fill him with fear?

As if sensing Jakob’s struggle, the captain quietly walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right,” he said softly. “‘Tis your first time at sea, is it not?”

Jakob simply nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“It’s easy to get spooked while you’re keeping the night watch,” the captain continued. “If it’s punishment you’re fearing, you can rest easy, for there’ll be none this time. Just take care not to cry ‘wolf’ again.”

“Yes, sir,” Jakob said, and the captain smiled faintly, perhaps the first time Jakob had ever actually seen him smile.

“You remind me a bit of my son,” he said thoughtfully. “With that same plucky spirit and sense of imagination. Does him as much trouble as good sometimes, though, and I’ll wager you’re the same way. Take care you don’t let it get the better of you, all right?” He clapped Jakob on the back. “Now, I think we can both agree your nerves have taken enough of a beating for one night. This is not my usual practice, but I’ll have Mr. McGillin take over for you. You go below decks and get some rest.”

“Yes, of course, sir,” Jakob said, feeling a flood of relief. He started for the hatch that led to the bunks below deck, and he risked one last glance back at the flaming ship. The fire was a roaring blaze by now, and he could hear it crackle and snap as sparks flew up to the heavens. Then finally, the burning, rotted wood could hold together no more, and the ship broke apart, bringing an end to The Sea Wraith forever. Jakob felt something brush against his ear and almost thought he heard a faint, pleading whisper, but it could only be the wind.

He shut his eyes, trying to drive the eerie, burning image of The Sea Wraith from his mind and convince himself the captain was right. This had all been much ado about nothing. The lingering fear he still felt likely would be forgotten by morning, and his anxiety would appear quite silly when the sun arose and chased away the dark gloom of night. The ship was gone; there was no reason for it to haunt him anymore.

He felt his body slowly start to relax, and he was just about to duck below decks when a sudden thought made his blood run as cold as ice, obliterating what little confidence he had regained after the captain’s speech: If the ship had been abandoned for years without a crew, then how could the lantern hanging from the mast, with its limited supply of oil, still have been burning…

“Captain!” Jakob halted in front of the hatch, feeling his heart begin to pound. “Captain, I don’t think—”

He was cut off by a high, piercing shriek that ignited every nerve in his body, and he whirled around just in time to see the captain take a staggering step backwards, his eyes filling with horror. The man’s posture snapped into an unnaturally stiff position, locked in place by some invisible force, and his face contorted into a grotesque, painful grimace. Jakob noticed he wasn’t breathing normally, either; he let out quick, breathy gasps, as though a ghostly hand was clutching at his neck and closing off his throat.

“Captain!” Jakob screamed again as he watched the blood drain from the captain’s face. The man was choking to death, and Jakob could do nothing but stare in terror as some unearthly power sucked the life from his body.

The captain’s lips trembled, and it appeared as though he was trying to force out a reply. His eyes bulged, and he finally managed to gasp, “Flee, you fool!” His eyes rolled back, and he collapsed on the deck just as the air filled with a chorus of bizarre shrieks Jakob knew could not have come from any living creature. Something shoved the ship hard to starboard, and the planks holding the ship together creaked and groaned. It was like the ship had been hit by a powerful gust of wind from a hurricane, but it couldn’t actually be the wind, because for once, the air was completely, terrifyingly still.

“It’s cursed! The Sea Wraith really is cursed!” Jakob screamed, just as the ship lurched once again, this time almost tipping over. A violent, rolling wave crashed onto the deck, soaking Jakob with a blast of unnaturally cold sea water and almost washing him off his feet. Overcome by fright, Jakob scrambled towards the hatch leading to the hold. He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly, but he didn’t really care; he was just desperate to get The Sea Wraith out of his sight. He tripped over a coil of rope and went sprawling on the deck, hitting his head against the wood. He felt something scurrying up his spine, as if claws were running up his back towards his head. He screamed and tried to get up, but he couldn’t think, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Dear God, what had they unleashed…

“Jakob!” He heard Patrick shout his name and felt the sailor jerking him off the deck, slapping him on the face in an attempt to rouse him from his daze. Patrick had the same wild look of fear in his eyes that Jakob did, but the Irishman was obviously a little more in control of his wits.

“What are you doing, you bloody idiot?” Patrick cursed. “We’ve got to get out of here! Heading below decks isn’t going to save you from whatever ungodly evil was hiding on board The Sea Wraith.”

Jakob’s whole body convulsed, and he began to tremble so uncontrollably he could barely stand. All around him, sailors were screaming and running in panic, driven mad by the ghostly shrieks. Some of them froze in place just like the captain had, gasping for several minutes until they too collapsed dead on the deck. Tendrils of smoke began to rise up from the grate on the ship’s hatch, and Jakob heard sailors pounding on the wood, trying to get out. He realized they were trapped down in the hold, and the crew of the damned from The Sea Wraith had somehow managed to set the hold on fire.

“We’ve got to help them!” Jakob shouted, breaking free of Patrick’s grip and dashing back towards the trapped crew members. He yanked on the hatch but found it was stuck. He could hear men screaming below him, and he pulled harder, determined to overcome whatever evil force was fighting back. “I won’t give up!” he cried. “Help me push, men! We can do this—”

The ship was rocked by a violent explosion, knocking Jakob flat on his back. The fire had apparently reached the powder kegs, and the blast had more than likely blown a hole in the side of the ship. It would be only minutes now until she sank…

“Go! Now!” Patrick commanded, grabbing Jakob by the collar of the shirt and dragging him overboard. Although Jakob inadvertently sucked in a mouth full of seawater and began to choke, Patrick didn’t stop swimming, dragging Jakob along behind him as he sought to put as much distance between them and The Caspertania and The Sea Wraith as possible. Patrick had already cut loose The Caspertania’s dinghy, and it was now drifting away from the ship. He hauled Jakob into the small boat and began madly rowing away from The Caspertania. They could only pray the unearthly spirits would be content to let them flee and didn’t decide their vengeance would be incomplete unless Jakob and Patrick also perished.

Jakob lay in the bottom of the boat, gasping for breath and try to cough up the salty water that was burning his lungs. He heard a secondary explosion, and he watched flames completely engulf the wreckage of The Caspertania as she sank beneath the waves. The burning wood slipped beneath the water and joined the ruins of The Sea Wraith down in ‘Davy’s Jones’ locker’—the graveyard at the bottom of the sea.

Patrick didn’t stop rowing; in fact, he kept rowing even after the last few pieces of burning wreckage had long since disappeared over the horizon. Jakob stared numbly up at the stars, which went on twinkling merrily in the sky as though nothing horrific had just occurred. It would take days, or maybe even months or years, for him to process what had happened. He supposed he should be grateful that he’d survived, that he hadn’t been killed with the rest of the crew, but it seemed cruel to feel anything close to relief while so many of the crew members of The Caspertania had perished this night.

“What in God’s name was that?” Jakob whispered, but Patrick didn’t answer. He probably didn’t know, and never would.

Jakob wasn’t sure how long they floated on the lonely ocean waters, and when they finally spotted the shores of Cuba beckoning to them in the distance, lit by the rising sun, he almost wept with joy. He’d never been so glad to see anything in his life as that lush, green island, with its promise of salvation from the cruel sea.

He decided that as soon as they reached land, he’d write his mother a letter. He’d let her know he had survived, but that she would probably never be seeing him again. That’s because the only way back to England was by ship, and he would never set foot in a ship again. All desire he’d ever had for a seafaring adventure had gone down with the wreckage of The Caspertania. Let the sea keep the rest of its secrets; he didn’t want to know them…

END