One evening in an old port town, a fisherman sat drinking in the shadows beneath the dock, warmed by the fire of a piece of burning driftwood. He bore no chains, but his shoulders were heavy, weighed down by an empty wallet and a broken heart. He was alone, until, as he took another swig from his bottle, he caught sight of a tall figure approaching out of the darkness.
“Who goes there?” Asked the fisherman.
“A sailor,” replied the shadow, and as he said it a cold gust of salty air disturbed the fire, as if to back up his point, “a sailor with a story to tell. I’d wager your fortunes have not yet sunk so low as me, and I’d like to tell you what befell me upon the sea.”
Although fisherman found that hard to believe, he reasoned that if it was true, it might make him feel a little better about his own lot, so he motioned to an empty crate on the other side of the fire. The sailor sat down in the shadow of one of the great wooden struts, and began to tell his story.
Once, there was a boy named John. He had grown up on the streets of a port town, but was adopted at a young age by an old fisherman who taught the boy his craft. The boy grew into a young man, and the young man worked hard, so hard that when the fisherman passed away he left the John everything he had. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that he was able to make his own way in the world, although eventually he tired of catching fish and became a sailor because he wanted to see the world.
For a time, all was well. John was happy, and soon he fell in love with a young woman. She had blonde hair, which fell in beautiful tresses like the manes of the white horses that ride the crests of the waves, and he charmed her with his tales of the sea.
His income was enough to support the two of them, but only just. They were forced to sell the old fisherman’s home and move into a tiny house in the bad part of town, where the buildings were crumbling and the cobblestones were overgrown with weeds. This made John miserable, because he wanted so much for his beloved. He wanted to buy her a fine, two-storied house, and to shower her in silk and pearls. He began to take even longer and riskier voyages in the hope of saving up enough money, and when he learned that his beloved was with child, he foolishly signed onto a particularly risky voyage.
At first, all was plain sailing. The ship made port in a distant land, collecting a rare and valuable cargo. But on the return journey the crew were attacked by pirates, and while they were able to fend them off, the ship’s mast was damaged beyond repair and many supplies were lost. They drifted, drifted for days and days, seeing nothing but open sky and endless sea. Eventually, half-mad and driven by a desperate hunger, the crew agreed that since they could not all live to see the ship make port, some would have to give their lives so that the others could live on.
Lots were drawn, and one by one the crew went into the pot, and the others ate well, sustained by their comrades’ sacrifice. But still they drifted on with no land in sight – nothing but the endless, unforgiving sea. John was disgusted by his comrades’ barbarity, and withheld or as long as possible, surviving for a while on the scavenged corpses of rats and seagulls, but in the end even he succumbed to in the end, even as he was overcome with guilt and shame.
Soon the crew’s numbers had dwindled down to less than half a dozen, and the name James Crawley – the ship’s first mate – came out of the hat. James Crawley was arrogant, and a coward, and refused to give himself up as his comrades had done, even though he had eaten of their flesh, and zealously too, taking more than his fair share. There was a struggle, and the first mate tied himself to the ship’s anchor and flung it overboard to escape his fate, knocking the young man into the sea as he did so.
The water was cold and the waves were harsh, and James Crawley sank down and down, but for John this disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise – he was saved by a mermaid, who took pity on him and returned him to the shore. The young man made his way back to the town where his beloved waited for him, but as he entered the town he realised that he could not face her with the guilt of what he had done still unabsolved. So he found a secluded cove and sat by the water’s edge for many days, praying and fasting and communing with the gods of the sea until they saw fit to grant him absolution.
Only then did he return to the town, and there he found his lover waiting for him, and with her his newborn son.
The young couple were married, and soon after they moved away from the port town, the young man having given up the life of a sailor to become a fisherman again. He had learned the lessons of pride and avarice, and was content to live a humble life in a small cottage on the banks of a river. In time, John became an old man, by which time he and his wife were blessed with two more children. One day, the old man grew ill, and knew he was soon to die. In his final hours, with his wife and children gathered round his bed, he put a wrinkled hand on the shoulder of his weeping eldest son, and told him: ‘Hush, child. Worse things happen at sea.’”
And with that the sailor ended his tale.
“I don’t believe it,” said the fisherman, “It’s too perfect. And besides, you’re still here. That last part can’t have happened to you at all.”
“You’re right,” said the sailor, “but every word of my story was true.” The fisherman pondered on the impossibility of this claim and was about to protest when his companion interrupted him with a question.
“Would you say John was a good man, in the end?”
“Well, yes, providing he really did redeem himself like you say.” The sailor nodded from his sitting position.
“And what about Crawley?”
“What, the ship’s mate? No! He was the worst of the lot.” There was a lengthy silence, broken only by the sound of the waves against the rocks.
“That’s a shame,” the sailor replied, getting slowly to his feet. As he did the fisherman heard the soft clinking of metal on metal, and the sound of something rusty grating on the stone beneath their feet, “But you’re right, of course.”
“Now then, John-” said the fisherman, warily, getting to his feet and holding out his hands. The smell of salt was strong in his nostrils as the other man stepped into the light of the fire.
“I never told you my name,” the sailor said. The last thing the fisherman saw before a great and terrible weight struck him across the head was the other man’s full height, clammy pale skin, and the red dripping from his chin.
Art by Elena Purlyte