A Tale From the Court of the Dead
By D. A. Campisi
The night was still, and the sea was the same. It had been the fourth consecutive day without even a gentle caress from the wind, leaving the sails of The Grace wilted and her crew stranded in a desert of lifeless water. A humbling situation with dire consequences for all thirty-five souls aboard her decks if there should be no change in the imminent future.
Dead in the water, as the saying goes.
Captain Edward Kind pulled up the ornate collar of his jacket to block the chill that hung in the air while he surveyed his surroundings. The flat waters reflected a full, circular moon, one as crimson as the bars that divided the English flag atop his mast. He scowled, bitter at how the wretched sea had left him powerless aboard a marooned vessel. It wouldn’t be long before the ship’s provisions were exhausted, which in turn would cause a panic amongst the more foolish of the crew. He had already started to hear ridiculous whispers below deck that black magic was the cause of the calm.
Whispers that only intensified when the First Mate, John Tuffet, vanished from The Grace on the second day of the calm.
Amongst the officers, it was thought the old fool must have fallen overboard and drowned after consuming a fair bit of the ship’s rum. To the crew, the vanishing was an ill omen for all still stranded aboard the vessel.
The captain did not believe in omens. Foul play was a much more likely culprit than superstitious nonsense. It was common knowledge that the heathen crew was glad to be rid of the Mr. Tuffet, as the First Mate had been more inclined towards using the whip rather than words to correct common blunders. This severe discipline was encouraged by the captain to keep the crew subjugated.
As a righteous man, Kind followed the laws of his God and his Queen, in that order. If murder and mutiny were afoot here, he would find it and grind it off of his vessel with the heel of his boot. He would bring God’s justice to the sinners responsible.
A sudden splash broke through the mirror of water below him, removing his grim thoughts on the disappearance and replacing them with a small shred of hope that the calm had finally ended. Alas, it was just the fin of a large fish that had breached the surface. A moment later, the sea returned to its previous barren state, with not a ripple of evidence remaining to the creature’s existence.
“Penny for your thoughts, Capt’n?” a voice said behind him. He turned to see Thomas Dooley approaching, the portly man still hobbling with a crutch from a wound he received in the last skirmish with Spain’s armada.
“My thoughts don’t come so cheap, Mr. Dooley,” Kind said as he returned his attention to the water.
“Beggin’ your pardons Capt’n. I meant no offense, sir” the boatswain said as he drew closer to the railing himself. “Forgive an old sailor for his boldness.”
The seafaring drawl in the mate’s voice was a blight in the captain’s educated ear, but it was something that Kind had learned to ignore over time. The majority of his crew was made up of veteran pirates and sailors, not the English navy as he would have preferred. Low-born scoundrels, all in search of wealth and glory, and who cared little for the will of God or their Queen. They disgusted him, the lot of them, and he would just as soon abandon them on some desolate rock to remove them from his sight or leave them to the Spanish to be slaughtered. He cared not which.
“Speak, Mr. Dooley,” he said, not hiding the impatience in his tone. “Was there some reason you tottered up here or was it just to bother me with your presence?”
The round man looked from side to side for a moment, making sure they were alone on the stern of the ship. When he was satisfied, he turned back and gave a quick nod. “I’ve been listenin’ around Capt’n. Listenin’ to the words shufflin’ about down below. The men, theys been talkin’.”
Another splash broke through the water below them, but Kind ignored it, turning instead to face his boatswain. “And what have they been saying?”
The man shrugged nervously, as if the stern expression of the captain had suddenly changed his mind about sharing the pertinent information. “This. That. Things scared men say when they’s stranded for a few days, I suppose.”
The mate looked around again, rubbing his hands together for a warmth the chilled night wouldn’t allow. “Well, some were sayin’ we should abandon ship. Load up the lifeboats with the remainin’ rations and row our way to the nearest port.”
“Ridiculous,” Kind said. “The nearest port would be a journey too far for any lifeboat. We would run out of fresh water by the second day.”
“See, that is what I says too, Capt’n,” Dooley said. “But the men, some of them ain’t got the spirits or the senses right now. This calm has drained it right out of them, it has. And after what happened to Mr. Tuffet…”
“By our God’s will, it will end soon,” the captain said. “And tell the crew that the next man who so much as whispers about abandoning my ship will take the long walk. Do you understand?”
“Aye Capt’n, aye,” Dooley said with a nod, as he turned to shuffle off below deck. Once the he was gone, the captain returned his attention back to the cold, empty water on more time.
“It will end soon,” he repeated.
As if in reply, a shrill screaming ripped through the quiet night. It roared from the bow of the ship with a sound more suited to the songs of banshees than that of men. Many of the crew rushed to the deck from below, but Kind was the first one to arrive at the scene. He saw young Mr. Adam Collins, knife in hand, dropping the corpse of Quartermaster Samuel Gold into the sea.
“Seize him!” the captain ordered.
The young man did not try to escape or fight as numerous crew members latched on to him and heaved him to the ground. Not a word left his lips in protest, and he did not protect himself as he was kicked and beaten by the pirates. He remained quiet and still, just like the surrounding waters that held the ship prisoner.
“Enough!” Kind said. “Pull him up.”
Two of the gunners lifted Collins from his beating and dragged him before the captain. It was only then the young man’s senses returned, when the frightful stare of Edward Kind bore deep into him.
“What— what happened?” he said, as his eyes darted from man to man. He winced and struggled, no doubt beginning to feel the pain from the thrashing he had just received. “Capt’n, I’m at a loss. What happened?”
“He has the fever!” one man yelled from the rear, which caused a rumble amongst the gathered men. Words flew of curses and omens, cries of how death would soon be upon them all echoed through the empty air.
“Silence!” the captain yelled and the men immediately went quiet. He took two steps forward and looked down at the mutinous swine that had just murdered his second in command. “Tell me Mr. Collins, did you murder John Tuffet the same way you murdered Mr. Gold?”
“Murder?” The reality of the situation shook through the young man’s voice. “No! Capt’n, no! Please, I’d never cross me mates.”
Screams of anger from the men were the only reply to this insinuation.
“Ain’t yer mates, you murderous dog,” said one of the gunners holding him.
“Bah! String him from the mast, says I!” one man cried over the other voices.
“Death by lashing!” another sailor screamed. “Give it to him till he bleeds, Capt’n!”
The captain raised his hand and again, the men went silent. Mr. Dooley had limped to his side, but the old seadog said nothing, only shaking his head in sad disbelief. Collins was sobbing now, words pleading for mercy fumbled from his lips in sputtered bits of nonsense— a much different sight than the tranquil young man he had just witnessed dropping a corpse over the side of his ship. The crewmen were riled, their eyes ravenous and eager to spill their young mate’s blood right there and now.
“Put this sinner in the stocks till I pass judgement upon him,” Kind said.
“No! No please!” Collins screamed as he clawed at the deck while the men pulled him away. He looked at Mr. Dooley as he was dragged toward the torturous clamps. “Mr. Dooley! Please! We was mates! We was mates!”
The sailors stripped him bare, keeping anything of value, and threw his clothes overboard before locking the young man’s arms and neck into the steel and wood stocks. After they finished, one man drew a bucket of water from the icy sea and tossed it over the pleading deckhand. More men joined in, drawing buckets and tossing them over Collins again and again till the boy was close to drowned.
The captain watched the scene play out for an hour; the weight of what must be done did not burden him in the slightest. There was no room for mercy, for pity. Two men were dead, and now their butcher must join them. God’s judgement would fall onto the woeful sinner.
Mr. Dooley stood by his side the entire time, leaning on his crutch, and was uncharacteristically quiet. He averted his eyes from the scene as he awaited the order to call an end to the young lad’s torment.
“That should be sufficient,” Kind said.
Dooley nodded and moved to the fore of the ship where Mr. Collins was still shackled. His water-logged body was swollen after the beatings he had taken from the men he considered his mates. He didn’t even glance up at Mr. Dooley as the boatswain’s whistle called all hands to the deck, nor did he look at the captain as Kind approached the stocks.
The sailors quickly made their way to the fore of the ship, and stood silently, waiting for the captain to be the first to speak.
“Let this be known to all of you,” Kind bellowed. “This man, Adam Collins, is guilty of the murder of Samuel Gold, as witnessed by myself and many of you. It is likely he was also complacent in the disappearance of John Tuffet. In retribution for their lost souls, and with the authority given to me by the Queen’s mercy, I sentence him to be trussed, weighted, and dropped into these wretched waters to drown as they did.
“The law of the sea is the law of our God! And should any of you men have qualms with this judgment, step forward, and plead mercy for his murderous soul.”
Out of the corner of his eye, the captain saw Collins’s head rise up, hopeful for someone to come forward on his behalf. None did, many of the men avoiding eye contact with both the doomed man and their captain.
“Mr. Collins,” Kind continued, “have you anything to confess on your behalf?”
A low mumble was the young man’s response.
“These will be your last words, boy. Best you spit them out for God and all to hear.”
“It wasn’t me,” Collins cried out. “I could never… would never hurt me mates aboard this ship, even those as cruel as Mr. Tuffet and Mr. Gold. It was the woman.”
The men stirred, their own murmurs starting low and grew in volume.
“Woman? What woman?” one man said quite loudly. “There be no women on board.”
“I saw her,” Collins said. “She came from the water, with hair like midnight, and skin the color of aged copper. She sang a beautiful song—
“He’s mad, he is,” a gunner said to another crewman. “It’s the fever taken hold of him.”
“It’s true,” Collins said, “I swear on me life. Mr. Dooley! You saw her too. Remember? We was together at the rail when we saw her. A long arm reached out from beneath the sea and beckoned to us.”
Most of the men, including Captain Kind, turned to look at the boatswain. The elder man’s coarse face simply turned to a grimace of disappointment as he shook his head.
“You saw a fish, lad,” Dooley said. “A fish. Not a woman. I done told you that the other night.”
“No! It was a woman, I swears it! I saw her the next night as well. She appeared to me again as I checked the sails, and she sang to me.”
“Bollocks,” Dooley responded.
“Enough!” Kind yelled to silence the bickering. “You’re sputtering nonsense and it only accentuates the guilt of your sin, Mr. Collins.” He turned to the two largest sailors and gestured them toward the young man. They knew what to do, and they freed Collins from the stocks and held him firmly. Moments later the man was trussed and weighted, the appropriate dress for a soul destined to spend the rest of eternity at the bottom of the sea.
“Adam Collins,” Kind said. “Your execution will now be carried out. May God have mercy on your soul.” The captain pointed toward the sea and the crewmen lifted and carried the murderer to the edge of the rail. Collins was sobbing, praying and pleading for clemency.
“Please. Please, spare me. I followed your guidance. I am your servant,” he said.
For a moment, the captain wondered if he had made the right decision. It surprised him, but something in the young man’s words caused a doubt to enter his mind. It lingered there, but he did not say a word to stop the sentence from being carried out.
Over the side Collins went, his body crashing through the sheet of still sea water and sinking out of sight into the dark unknown depth.
There was silence for a few minutes, until Kind turned his back to his men. “The Lord’s justice for Samuel Gold and John Tuffett has been carried out. You are dismissed.”
The men dispersed as ordered, inaudible whispers rumbling about what they had just witnessed. The captain paid them no heed. He knew he had no reason to regret his decision to execute Mr. Collins, as it was what needed to be done. Mercy had no place in his command, and no place aboard The Grace. Still, he was unable to push the doubt from his mind that somewhere he had made an error in judgement.
Something was amiss.
“Capt’n? You alright?”
He turned to see Dooley had stayed with him by the railing where Collin’s had been dropped.
“Yes, fine,” Kind said as he turned back to face the man, though he was uncertain if he believed his own words. He hoped maybe the old boatswain would hobble away after that, but he continued to stand there, staring at the captain as if he had just vanished for a moment. “Is there a problem?”
“Problem?” Dooley said. “No sir. It’s just…”
“That poor lad, he—”
“Poor lad?” Kind repeated.
“No disrespect, Capt’n, but—“
“You feel pity for Collins. A murderer. And what of the two God-fearing men, slain by his hand, and thrown to be a feast for the sharks?”
Dooley cocked his head to the side for moment, as if jarring free a memory. “Aye, God-fearing they may have been, Capt’n, but they weren’t exactly the kindest of blokes, were they? I mean, the way they handled some of the crew—”
Kind cut him off again. “Your words are straying dangerously close to mutiny in themselves, Mr. Dooley. Gold and Tuffet were my men, brothers in faith and in duty. They acted under my orders, and distributed fair punishments as I instructed them. You think this is justification for their deaths?”
“No, sir,” Dooley said, putting his hands up in a show of pathetic supplication. “I was only trying to say that Mr. Collins didn’t seem like the type to do something like this by his own self. Not to me old eyes, at least.”
It was a fair point. Adam Collins had never struck the captain as someone who was gifted with original thought. He was simple, and always followed orders without question. Was such a boy capable of cold blooded murder?
“Your concerns are noted, Mr. Dooley. However, at this moment I must go on the assumption that he was alone, and acting upon a fever brought on by our current predicament.”
He gestured toward the tranquil waters, but even as he spoke, Kind felt as if there was a flicker of information that was not connecting inside his mind. He could not fathom what it was, and it caused a knot to linger in the pit of his stomach like a piece of meat that had turned long ago.
“Aye, Capt’n, I suppose you be right to that end,” Dooley said.
“It is the most logical conclusion,” Kind said. Dooley nodded in agreement and both men continued to look over the rail at the water, still and cold. A splash echoed through the silence, caused by something unseen, close to the boat and shrouded from the moonlight. The captain tried to push his worries aside, justifying the unease in his stomach as apprehension from being stranded so long, and not from the evening’s events.
It was then a thought occurred to him that made Kind chuckle softly to himself, which was not something he did often in front of a subordinate. He had an image to maintain, one he had bled and toiled for his entire life, and it was not of a man who chuckled.
“Capt’n?” Dooley asked. “Somethin’ funny?”
“I was just thinking,” Kind said, “that it is the most logical conclusion, unless you believe in mermaids.”
“Yes, the nonsense Collins was spouting about a woman in the water, singing to him, commanding him, et cetera. If he really believed that ridiculous excuse he gave, the poor boy is better off at the bottom of the ocean. We saved him from madness.”
“I suppose so,” Dooley said. “But I’m not sure I see what’s so funny about all that, Capt’n,” The older man fidgeted and twitched as if he seemed uncomfortable inside his own skin. His callused right hand scratched the silver stubble on the left side of his neck, and he squinted when he turned from side to side again just to make sure he and the captain were still alone. “You see, um, most of the men, they believe in mermaids… and other things like that.”
Kind scoffed. “Surely you jest, Mr. Dooley.”
“No sir, I speak the God’s honest truth. But you know, most of the men they doesn’t have the same education as the likes of you and me, you see.”
The very idea that Dooley considered himself an intellectual equal with the captain made Kind’s stomach turn more, but he remained quiet as the old boatswain continued to speak.
“They seen things that only men who have lived a full life on the sea have seen, sir. Beasts no man can explain and strange happenings that defy the laws of nature herself.”
Kind shook his head. “Hallucinations. Held for weeks upon a ship will take a toll on the weak-minded. But mythical beasts and curses? Blasphemous nonsense. Such things would be an affront to our God.”
Dooley cocked his head one side. “Aye, it could be the fever. It could be. But I’m sure even you Capt’n have seen things you cannot explain.”
A crooked grin broke on Dooley’s face. “So four full days of still water is commonplace out in middle of the sea, eh?”
“It is the calm before a storm,” Kind said. “That and nothing more.”
“Aye, that it is Capt’n.” Dooley rested his crutch against the rail and then pointed out to the sea where another splash resonated in the stillness.
Kind looked out to where the old fool was pointing but saw nothing at first. Then there was another splash, closer to the ship, and he looked down over the railing.
It was only then he saw the glistening hand extended from below the water’s surface. Sleek, feminine, with skin the hue of aged copper. It beckoned to him, rising higher from the tranquil water revealing an arm that swayed like gentle waves. A webbed index finger made a gesture as if summoning him to come nearer.
Kind leaned closer to the railing for a better look.
“What the devil is—”
Mr. Dooley’s sabre cut short the captain’s words, the steel piercing though his back and emerging from his chest. Edward Kind coughed as the sword held firm inside his lungs. He tried to push himself back to break loose from the older boatswain, but Dooley held him tight to the rail with an inhuman amount of strength.
“It’s just as she said,” the old sailor said with a twinge of sadness in his voice, “Not a drop of blood. We are dead men.”
Kind tried to turn, but the sword deep in his back held him in place. He looked down and where blood should have been saturating his chest, there was nothing. Nothing but pain. He coughed again, but no blood spilled from his lips and no fluid filled his lungs. The memories though. The memories came flooding back. A recent battle with the Spanish armada. The slaughter of him and all of his men. No survivors.
“It’s- It’s not possible,” Kind said, but he knew the truth. He didn’t even fight back as Dooley grabbed his right arm and bent it back, still holding him tight to the rail while the boatswain withdrew his sword.
“What’s the matter? Is the great Capt’n Kind afraid of death? Surely not, as much holy nonsense you been spewing since we came aboard, eh?” Dooley chuckled. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”
Dooley twisted Kind’s arm back more, pulling the hand away from the captain’s body. Turning his head back, he could only watch the swift movement of Dooley’s sword coming down and dismembering his hand from the rest of his arm. A brief pain echoed through Kind’s body from the lost appendage and when Dooley released his hold, the captain dropped to his knees.
“You… bastard,” Kind said, cradling the bloodless stump at the end of his wrist. “You’ll burn in… hell for th—” Looking up at Dooley, the boatswain was holding the severed hand up for the captain to see. What had looked to be flesh just moments before, was now skeletal, shriveled and dry. The hand of a long dead corpse.
“The Mistress says she has a quota to fill, but she can’t until some business is taken care of,” Dooley said. “Not really sure I knows what that means, but I think this should do the trick.”
He tossed the hand overboard into the sea.
It took but a moment and the water around the displaced hand began to move, breaking the stillness in small curling waves and the captain felt something he hadn’t in four days. A small gust of wind gliding across his face.
“Yeah, I was right,” Dooley said through a near audible sneer. “You’re the one she needs.”
Dooley grabbed Kind by his ornate coat and lifted him to his feet. In one swift motion the boatswain threw the captain over the rail and into the icy water, breaking the surface with a deafening crack. The sea engulfed him, wrapped around him, and invaded his body through his mouth and the gaping wound in his chest. He frantically kicked to try and keep his head above the water, but new waves broke the calm and threatened to pull him under.
He could see Dooley was watching him struggle as the ocean waves started to carry The Grace away from him. The old boatswain called out, “I would say I’m sorry Capt’n, but that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? Don’t bother callin’ for help either. I don’t thinks the men will care. They never liked you much.” Kind tried to respond, but water flooded his mouth each time he opened it. Dooley waved at him and yelled out one last thing. “And, truth be told Capt’n, Collins was right. She does have a lovely singing voice, doesn’t she?”
It wasn’t till then that he heard it. A woman’s voice singing a beautiful song. It sounded like an ethereal, loving requiem for a lost lover. It couldn’t be real, but it was getting louder, closer to him. Even when his head dipped below the waves he could hear the song calling to him.
Something wrapped around his ankle and pulled him under. Something else wrapped around his neck, oily and cold. It tightened and pulled him even deeper into the ocean depth.
She was there. He wasn’t sure how, but he could see her clearly— her skin a cold greenish-blue, her long hair floating all around like black ink in the surrounding water. She was adorned with jewelry that framed a face and torso of such beauty he could scarcely believe it possible.
But that beauty ended at her waist, and the rest of her form was unlike anything he had seen before, man or beast. She had no legs but the tail of a sea serpent, one that was decaying and foul. Scales and spikes peeled from it in chunks of rotten flesh. Long tendrils protruded from her sides and moved through the water like sentient eels. It was these tendrils that had pulled him under.
She smiled as she pulled him closer, eye to eye with her. She had no pupils, but blank yellow eyes that stared back into his own. Her hands reached out to caress his cheek and arm, and he could see long fingers that were webbed and connected by pieces of thin skin.
“Mmmm, yes,” she said, her voice not coming through his ears, but directly touching into his mind. “You are the one.”
Kind couldn’t move, the fear binding him just as much as the tendrils. “Wha-What do you want with me?” he wanted to say but his jaw did not respond. Still, the Siren turned her head slightly to the side as if she had heard him.
“Want you?” she said. A cold laugh echoed from behind an equally cold smirk. “Why would you think I want you, Edward Kind?
“No, we do not want you, but rather that ship of lost souls. Men whom you tormented, tortured, and then led into a slaughter. I have been searching for them. Lost in the ether between the realms, unable to move on due to the stubborn will of one man… and a loyal few.”
She gestured down to the lower portion of her body. There were other men trapped in her coils. His brothers in faith and duty. Mr. Gold had similar tendrils wrapped around his neck, waist, and arms. He wasn’t moving, his face locked in a horrible stare of fear as fanged spikes pierced through his dead flesh and held him in place. A bit further down the serpent-like tail was Mr. Tuffet. A large chunk of his abdomen was missing, having been ripped out and eaten by some shark or fanged monster, and a tendril was wrapped around his neck like a noose. His dead skin was peeling away from being picked at and eaten by small fish. To the right of him was young Mr. Collins, trapped in a cage of claws, still naked and bound as he had been when he was dropped into the water, but otherwise unharmed.
“I had some fun with these two while I waited,” she said, gesturing to the mutilated bodies of Gold and Tuffet. “I returned their cruelty back in kind, and their agony provided some entertainment.” Her attention turned to Collins. “I will be keeping this young one, and the lost souls that still remain aboard your vessel.”
The Siren’s tendrils tightened and pulled Kind closer to her. A soft smile played across her lips, and the gaze of her eyes felt like it was piercing the very core of his soul.
“You, however, are just like these other two. Worthless souls, stubborn and blind, that kept that ship hidden from my sight for so long. You are not needed by the Dark Shepherd.”
“She-Shepherd?” Kind thought. “But, I have been faithful. I have served God justly. I do not deserve the fires of hell.”
She laughed again. “There is no justice. No good, no evil. Only order, and chaos… and suffering. I will send you on to your precious Heaven, but I think you will find their fire burns just as hot as the pit you fear.”
The claws and tendrils retracted from Gold and Tuffet, letting the men sink into the blind darkness below them. “Perhaps the angels will be merciful on you,” the Siren said, “though I do not expect this to be so.”
Kind tried to speak, to beg for mercy, but his lips did not move. He could no longer feel any air in his lungs, nor the beating of his heart. He could only hear her requiem sweetly playing in his mind as she released him into the abyss. The water currents grabbed and pulled him downward, and he watched the Siren lead his ship away until both disappeared from sight.
The calm had ended.
BIO: D. A. Campisi is a fiction writer and blogger. His recent short story, It Matters How This Ends, is available in The Rogue’s Gallery short fiction anthology on Amazon and from Kapuha Press. He resides in Los Angeles, California with his lovely wife, Kristine, and his Ewok, Princess Kneesaa the Instagram sensation.
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