The Sea-Ghost

The wind tore at the rigging of the merchant ship, ripping apart the sails, and wooden planks broke away from the hull, and the fragments of wood rolled in the open sea among swirls of white foam.  Captain Edric yelled at his oarsmen to row, and he yelled to the man controlling the rudder to steer them toward shore, and the rest of the crew took buckets and threw water off the port side to keep the boat afloat.

Lord Wyndham, vassal to Earl William de Longespée of Salisbury, and his squire, Aldan, helped pitch water over the railing.  The sea misted and churned.  Wyndham could smell the salt in the air, and he could taste it in his mouth.  Waves slammed against the stern and prow, and the boat spun in circles, and the steersman sliced the rudder hard into the water, but the ship would not obey; it obeyed only the wind and the waves and the rain.

Wyndham shielded his eyes as he looked up at the sky.  Clouds the color of soot and iron raced overhead, and flashes of lightning singed the darkened sky from west to east.  One of the waves crashed over the top of the railing, and the knight held onto one of the sealskin ropes attached to the mast to keep from falling, and Aldan slipped and landed on his back, and the water buried his body.  The sea sizzled in the bottom of the boat, and Wyndham reached out a hand to Aldan.  The squire took it and then grabbed onto the rope.  Captain Edric was cursing his men to row harder.

“She’s taking on too much water,” Aldan said.  The water level had risen to just above their ankles.  It did not matter how fast the crew hurled the water back into the sea; the sea always won.  “We’ll die!”

Wyndham looked around him.  The oarsmen rowed in unison, digging their oar shafts into the violent sea, but their strength could not outweigh the strength of the storm.  The boat circled and then finally turned awkwardly toward the shore.  The rain seemed lighter to the north, and Wyndham could see the outline of the rocky Welsh coast through the fog.

“There,” Wyndham said, pointing to the shore.  “Not much farther.”  The knight longed to set foot on dry land again, and when his mission was complete, he would return home and drink ale beside a fire next to some buxom whore, who would comfort him.  He would be in need of comforting after this dreadful trip.

The boat heaved and creaked as the waves beat against it.  The prow crested each wave with uncertainty, and even though the shoreline grew much clearer with each dip of the oars, Wyndham still worried they could not outrun the storm.  The sky paled in the north and east, but in the west, it grew blacker than coals.  The storm was only mocking them; it would hit with an even greater fury.  Captain Edric knew this as well, and he would not allow his crew a relief.

“Row, you sons of whores!” Edric stood at the stern shouting orders.  “You’re the whelps of the devil, and if you don’t row faster, the devil will surely come to claim you as his own and take you down to Hell.”  The oars rippled the dark sea, and the boat glided toward the coastline.  “What are you staring at?” Edric said to Wyndham and Aldan.  “Get back to work.  The devil may not take you, you arrogant noble shard of dung, but I will if you don’t do as I say.”

Wyndham knew the captain was in no position to give a vassal of Earl Longespée orders, but he also realized Edric was right, and if he did not help bail the water from the boat, they would never make it to the shore in time.

The sea misted, and the rain slanted in the wind, and the rocky outcrop of the mainland grew taller with each stroke of the oars.  Wyndham and Aldan picked up their wooden buckets and resumed tossing water over the railings of the vessel.  The water level in the hull was falling, and the knight felt the ship pick up speed as it dropped weight, and then he heard a thunderclap and a guttural rumble riding on the wind and waves, and he looked to the western sky.  The dark clouds burned with white heat, and he turned to Edric.  The captain had seen the warning signs, and Wyndham noticed a flush of worry cross the older man’s face.  Wyndham knew they both had the same thought: the Sea-Ghost could not outrun the fury of the storm and the crew would all die in the open waters. Edric glanced at the Welsh coast, and when he turned back to his crew, his face was stoic again.  He jumped down from the stern and walked along the keel cursing louder than before.  One of the oarsmen was looking at the sky and praying as he rowed, and Edric smacked him on his back with a wooden rod.

“Your god cannot make this ship go faster, you worthless turd!  But I can!  Now row, and if you must pray, pray to the gods of the sea.”  Edric still held to the pagan gods of the ancient Britons.

The captain sounded confident, but Wyndham had seen the look of fear on the captain’s face that the others had not, and the knight felt certain he would never see his English home again.  It was this realization that should have sent a chill through his bones, but instead, he felt neither peace nor fear.  He could never remember feeling like this before.  In battle, he had experienced the panic that drives men to fear, and afterwards, when he had walked among the dead and thanked God that he was not numbered with them, he had felt a calming sensation wash over him; but here, in this moment, as the Sea-Ghost drifted alone on the gray sea, he felt nothing.  He was like the driftwood that floated on the white foam: abandoned and helpless.  His survival would depend on fate, and if he was lucky, God might reach out and drive his fate away from the storm and safely into the shore.

Edric did not believe in one God controlling man’s destiny.  He believed in many gods, and Wyndham guessed, as the captain walked up and down the boat, that he was surely putting his faith in those gods and goddesses that spun the eternal fate of mankind.

Wyndham felt a sharp sting on his wrist, and he whirled around.  Edric stood next to him with the wooden rod poised to strike.

“That goes for you too,” Edric said.  “I see you looking at the sky, no doubt praying to your god to save us.”  Actually, Wyndham had been doing no such thing.  He doubted if God even heard him anymore.  “Well, I’ll tell you like I tell them.  You have a better chance of surviving by picking up a bucket or an oar than wasting your time praying to something that can’t hear you.”  Edric raised the wooden rod, and Wyndham put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Do it again, and I’ll cut off that hand and feed it to the sharks,” Wyndham said.

“As long as you are on my ship, you will do as I say and submit to my discipline.  We need workers if we are to ride through this storm, not priests and monks.”

“Talk and curse all you like while we’re on this boat, but next time you strike one of Earl Longespée’s men, I will split you from crotch to gullet and leave your body to rot once we reach the shore.”

Edric turned red-faced and gripped the handle of the rod until it shook, but he did not strike again.  Turning around, he went back to walking the keel and shouting orders.  Wyndham took up his bucket and began bailing water from the hull.

“What was that all about?” Aldan said.  The squire dipped his bucket and hurled water over the railing.

“Insolent baseborn son of a tanner’s daughter,” Wyndham said.  “If we didn’t need him to captain this ship, I would have him strung up and flogged.”

“Turn him over to the sheriff when we return to Salisbury.  He’ll deal with the old prick.”

“This is a merchant ship, Aldan.  Edric will leave us in Wales and then sail north to Ireland or south to France.  We’ll never find him again.”

“So what do you plan to do with him?”

“If we survive the storm, I plan to kill him once we reach dry land.”

“What about his men?  They will try to stop you.”

“His men hate him worse than me.  Once their captain is dead, they can take the boat and sail back to England for all I care.  They will find a new master to serve under.”

“As harsh or worse than Edric, no doubt.”

“It matters not to them.  As long as this one is dead.”

The second wave of the storm hit stronger than the first.  The wind ripped the mast in half, and the top part of the pole landed on two men, crushing them both.  Edric attempted to turn the boat with the storm and ride the crest of it into shore, but the wind had shredded the sail, and so Sea-Ghost flailed and thrashed in open water.  The ashen sky burned to black, and the rain fell in heavy sheets until they were wrapped in a dense fog.  The rocky coast disappeared from view, and the waves crashed and bent the planks of the hull, and the boat swirled in the current, making Wyndham lose all sense of direction.  He was knee deep in water now, and he threw his bucket away and sloshed across the vessel to the back of the boat.  Edric had climbed to the stern, and he was pointing and shouting at his men to turn the boat around.  Wyndham had no idea where they were headed.  The knight thought their present course was northwest, which meant — if he was right — that Edric was trying to turn them southwest, directly into the heart of the storm. Wyndham, for once, hoped he was wrong.

“You’re taking us directly into the storm!” Wyndham shouted to Edric.  The gale grew fierce and tugged at Wyndham’s long hair.  Seawater misted his face and stung his eyes.  He licked his lips and wiped the water from his face.  The taste of salt was strong on his tongue.  “It’s suicide!”

Edric glared at Wyndham.  “I told you to mind your tongue.  If we don’t change course, we’ll be blown out to sea, and we will never make it back to land.  The coast is that way!” Edric pointed into the wall of gray fog.

The boat lurched and spun, and Wyndham grabbed onto the ladder leading to the deck of the stern.  Edric held on to the railing, and with his free hand, he motioned for the oarsmen to continue maneuvering the vessel around.

Wyndham steadied himself and pointed off the starboard side.  “Captain.  The coast is there!  I can see the cliffs through the fog.”  Through the haze, Wyndham thought he glimpsed the white surf breaking on the shingle.

“You fool!” Edric said.  “If I had let you captain this vessel, we would have all died shortly after leaving port.  Now step back and let me do my job.

The wooden rod leapt out and caught Wyndham on the hand.  The blow stung, and Wyndham released his grip on the ladder.  The knight went for his sword, but as he did, a wave crashed over the port side and slammed against him.  The force of it knocked him to the ground.  For a moment, Wyndham lay there in a pool of water, and when he rose, he no longer saw the captain at the stern.  The wave had washed Edric overboard.

Wyndham climbed the ladder and looked off the stern.  The sea churned below him, the waves rising and falling with the wind and rain, but the captain was not in sight.  The sea gods had claimed him.  Not knowing why, Wyndham prayed to God to receive his soul, but he doubted the prayers of a soldier would do a heathen much good.  A priest or a bishop could not even will the soul of a pagan into Paradise.

At the loss of their captain, the crew forgot what they were doing and started yelling at each other.

“Keep the boat coming around!” one of the oarsmen said, trying to keep the crew rowing in unison.

“What’s the point!?” another man said.  “She’s taken on too much water as it is!  Best to bail now!” The man pulled off a loose plank from the starboard railing and jumped into the water.  Another man followed.  Wyndham caught a brief glimpse of them swimming into the fog, and then a wave came, and they were gone.

“What happened?” Aldan said, sloshing over to Wyndam.  The water in the hull had risen to their thighs.

“He’s gone,” Wyndham said.  “Wave took him clean overboard.”

“Edric?”

“I should have been the one to kill him.”

“Maybe you’ll get your chance when we both meet him in Hell.”

“Now’s not the time to damn our own souls, Aldan.”  Wyndham turned away and shielded his eyes with his cloak.  The fine, green wool sagged and dripped black in the rain.  “We may yet end up like him.  We are no better than a pagan without a bishop or priest to absolve us.”

“A bishop would not do me any good, lord.  The Blessed Mother and Saint Paul stopped watching over me from birth.”

Wyndham thought of all the sermons he had heard on Hell and Satan and the demons of Satan.  He pictured the black mouth of Hell opening to receive the wicked, flames licking at sinner’s feet as they fell into the arms of the eternal tormentor.  It reminded him much of the dark waters, swirling, foaming, waiting to take Sea-Ghost to its grave, and along with it, its crew.  He shuddered.  Wyndham greatly feared the lake of fire, smoldering and steaming and simmering, but he had an even greater fear of a God who would send him there.

The knight turned back to his squire.  “Then pray that they will hear you again.  Pray to God, pray to Jesus, pray to Saint Paul and Saint Peter and Saint Benedict, pray to the Virgin Mother if you must.  We are not sunk yet.”

Wyndham climbed the ladder to the stern and yelled over the raging wind.  His cloak rippled in the wind and wrapped around his body.  His hair streamed past his face.  “Men of the Sea-Ghost.”  Everyone had stopped rowing.  Five had jumped from the ship.  Three Wyndham had seen drown; the other two, lost in the fog.  A few men continued to bail water, but most had given up hope.  They had resorted to fighting one another.  Wyndham drew his sword from its scabbard and held it in the air.  It gleamed pale in the gray light.  “Men!” he yelled twice more, but no one paid attention to him.  Two men had ganged up on another oarsman, and they were drowning him in the water-filled hull.

Wyndham drew his sword from its scabbard and hopped off the deck, slogging along the keel until he reached the two men.  He took the first man by his tunic and threw him against the railing.  The second man released his grip on the other man and faced the knight.  Once he saw the sword, he slowly backed away.  Wyndham helped the drowning man to his feet.  He was a boy, no more than sixteen.  Leaning over, the boy coughed water through his mouth and nostrils.

“Men!” Wyndham said again, and he had the crew’s attention.  “Sea-Ghost is still afloat, and while she lives, so do we.  Now unship your oars and make for shore.”

“We can run her no longer,” one oarsman said.  “Her belly is full of water.  The sea has control of her now.”

“Then I suggest you pray to God that controls the sea.  I will row.”

Wyndham sat down on one of the benches.  The water flowed over his waist, but his arms were still free, so he grabbed an oar and plunged it into the sea and began to row.  His bones froze as the water seeped through his garments and into his skin.  It was early March, and the English weather had yet to turn warm.

Soon, Aldan joined him, and they rowed, and then more men joined, and the vessel slowly began to change course.  Wyndham shouted orders to head in the direction he believed was north.  That was where he had seen the waves breaking white on the shingle.  The men of the Sea-Ghost rowed, but the boat could not gain speed.  The wind continued to tear at the rigging, and the vessel soon came to a halt again.  The crew is right, Wyndham thought.  The ship is too heavy.

God must have heard the crew’s prayers, for out of the water rose a great swell, and instead of capsizing the boat, the wave caught underneath the hull on the port side and propelled the boat forward.  Slowly, the gray fog began to thin, and out of the haze rose the cliffs.  There, the white foam crashed against the rocks and sprayed water into the air.  The vessel rode the wave inland, and before slamming into the rocks, it released from the wave and floated wearily on the water.  Wyndham yelled for the men to row, and the boat glided into an opening in the cliff side, where the Sea-Ghost waited out the storm.

Gradually, the sky lightened; it changed from black to gray to golden-orange, and streaks of crimson flamed the clouds and glittered like a thousand torches along the water’s surface.  They had fought the storm all afternoon, and in the end, they had won.

Wyndham did not want the men to see him as he prayed.  He did not want them to know he had been afraid.  So instead of hanging his head and lifting his hands to God, he stared out at the sea and prayed silently.  A prayer of silent thanks for their deliverance.  He did not know if God heard him, or even if it had been God that had reached down and directed their fate to the mainland.  Some of the crew surely thought so, for they prayed openly and made the sign of the cross across their chests.  Aldan said he did not believe in such foolishness.  To him, it had been pure chance that the wave had not drowned them and instead pushed them to shore.

Wyndham thought of the story of Jonah.  The crew had thrown the prophet from the boat, and God had calmed the sea.  For the crew of the Sea-Ghost, the pagan captain had been thrown into the sea, and they had survived.  Had Edric remained on the ship, he would have driven them directly into the storm, and they would have died.  Was it chance? Or fate? An act of the gods of old? Or of the God of Heaven?  Wyndham did not have the answers to such questions.  He, unlike the priests and bishops and pope, had not been ordained to receive such knowledge and wisdom.  He could not commune with God like they could.  Nor did he have such blind faith as the men who rowed for the Sea-Ghost.  They would believe anything the clergy told them.  Whether it had been a miracle or simply a stroke of good fortune, he could not deny God’s power to create and destroy, to give life and take away.  I could have been the one, Wyndham thought.  The captain could have lived, and I could have died, and then it would be me who would be suffering the torments of Hell and not him.

“Gods be good,” Aldan said, clasping Wyndham on the shoulder.  “The tide is turning. We should attempt a landing now and get off this rotting piece of filth.”

“I did not think you believed in any gods?” Wyndham said.

“I don’t,” Aldan said.  “But you do.  And you are my lord, so I thought it would comfort you.”

“Then say God, and not gods.  I’m not a pagan.”

“Very well.  God be good.  Now let us row this hunk of wood out of here before we sink and are all washed back out to sea.”

Wyndham took up a place along one of the benches, and the crew followed his lead; they unshipped the oars and allowed the current to pull them out of the cave, and then they rowed along the cliff base.  When they reached the shingle, they docked the Sea-Ghost along the rocky coast, secured it by rope, and then climbed down onto the beach.  Many of the oarsmen bent to kiss the earth, but Wyndham would not allow himself such degradation, not in front of a lot of commoners.  He was high-born, and he felt he must demonstrate strength and leadership through confidence.  He never doubted they would survive, or so he would have them believe.

Wyndham walked along the seacoast with Aldan, the waves thundering against the rocks and misting the air with white foam.  Out to sea, the sky deepened, and the sun split against the horizon, its scarlet rays brushing the edges of gray clouds.  Wyndham could smell the salt of the sea on the wind mixed with the rotting stink of seaweed and fish.  He looked back over his shoulder at the crew.  They had moved off the rocks and were lying in a stretch of open sand.  They had wanted to start a fire, but they had found nothing dry enough to use as kindling.  The weather was brisk, and so they huddled together for warmth.  Wyndham had shed his cloak and had laid it on the rocks to dry.  He clutched his arms to his chest as his walked.

“A pity to waste such fine drink,” Aldan said, referring to the casks of ale the seawater had drowned and spoiled.  The crew had pulled out the barrels and when they had opened them, a murky liquid had poured out of the casks and colored the sand brown.  “I could do with a nice fire, a pot of ale, and some serving wenches to sit on my lap.”

Aldan was young; he was fourteen and naturally would think of such things.  Wyndham had been wishing the same earlier, but now, after having endured the wrath of God and escaped Hell, Wyndham only wanted to return home and curl up in the warmth of his bedchamber and fall asleep.  He could not fault the young man, though.  He had been much the same when he was that age: adventurous, unafraid, invincible.  A taste of death might do him good, Wyndham thought.  Aldan continued to ramble on about how many girls he had plowed – quite an exaggeration, Wyndham was sure, for a boy his age – how many pots of ale he could drink in an hour, how skilled he was with a sword and knife, and how he beat Barlow Goldsmith at dice, the best dice thrower in all of England.  He reminds me so much of myself, Wyndham thought.  That was nothing to be proud of.  If he has learned this from me, surely I must add it to the list when I meet with my priest upon our return.

Wyndham wondered how many sins he could commit and still receive absolution.  He recalled something Jesus had said about seventy times seven.  He prayed he had not reached the limit.  And did one sin count as greater than another? Wyndham thought of all the prostitutes he had visited over the years: years before he was married, the day before his wedding, the day after his wedding, and for many years after that.  His wife had finally left him.  Her family came from a rich line of barons in Normandy, and on a cool day in spring, she had sailed across the channel back to France.  He later heard she had wed the Duke of Gascony.  One more reason he hated the French.  But, he could never hate her.  Even now, he still loved her.  He wanted her to come back, but he knew she would never return.  She had sailed away, and she had taken their son, and Wyndham would never see them again.  He could face his own son in battle one day and kill him and not even know it.  The idea of it brought tears to his eyes.

Wyndham walked along the coastline kicking pieces of driftwood that had floated to shore.  He stopped when he saw a wooden rod clanking in the surf against the rocks.  He bent down and picked it up.

“What is it, lord?” Aldan said.

Wyndham clutched the rod in his fist.  He remembered the sting of it on his knuckles.

“The staff of the captain,” Wyndham said.  He searched the rocks for a body but found none.

“At least his stick won’t burn in Hell.” Aldan laughed.  “A shame he won’t have his wooden prick to keep him company.”

Wyndham felt another tinge of sadness for the dead pagan.  The passing of the storm had calmed his anger, and he thanked God he had never been given the chance to kill Edric.  It was just as well that he did not have one more murder to add to his list.

“May God receive his soul,” Wyndham said.

“No more than he would receive yours or mine,” Aldan said.  The squire took the rod and tossed it into the sea.  “Let his sea gods play with it.  No doubt they have more use for it than he does.  As for me, I still have a use for mine, as do many of the young ladies in England.  The gods, or God, may have it back when I’m done.”  Aldan laughed and slapped Wyndham on the back.  “I’m in desperate need of drinks and whores,” he said.  “When do we return home?”

“When our job is done,” Wyndham said.  The wind picked up, and he rubbed his hands up and down his arms.

“So we are to continue on?”

“That is our charge, by the Earl himself,” Wyndham said. Longespée was warden of the Welsh marches and a commander in King John’s army, and the Earl had sent for Wyndham to help him deal with the Welsh rebels.

“What about the boat and the crew?”

“The men will want to repair the ship and sail home.  We’re on our own from here.”

“I don’t know why I follow you sometimes,” Aldan said.

“Because if you don’t, I will send you back to your father, and you can feed from your mother’s milk, and you can have her bathe and wipe you.  My brother did not send you to my castle for comfort; he sent you to my castle for training.”

“Right, I forgot.”  Aldan laughed again.  “When do we leave?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I’ll go tell the men.”  Aldan turned and walked along the shingle back toward the camp.

Wyndham could hear the distant creaking of the Sea-Ghost as it rolled over the incoming waves.  A flock of seagulls landed on the rocks squawking and then took to flight when a wave crashed against the shore.  They flew out over the sea, their silhouettes black against the purple sky, their wings spreading and flattening in unison as they dove toward the water and then rose again into the air.  As Wyndham watched them, he thought of home, and he thought of Edric and Aldan, and he thought of his wife and son, and he thought of the priest to whom he would make confession.  Wyndham realized his was not a life to be envied.  It was one marred by regrets and mistakes, a life he hoped Aldan would not follow.  I should send him back to my brother, Wyndham thought.  It would be better for him I think.  The captain’s wooden rod was still floating near the shore, rising and falling with the waves.  Wyndham watched it drift in the open sea, and he almost envied it, like he envied the seagulls.

Copyright © 2008 Steven Till