I have been challenged by the very talented Haunted Wordsmith to again take part in the Tell the Story Challenge. It’s quite simple, I was given an image and tasked with telling a story. I initially was going to decline but the picture was so challenging I forced myself to rise to the challenge. Before you read, check out the Wordsmith’s blog. You won’t be disappointed.
The Captain stood at the bow and stared at the gray horizon. In all directions, as far his eyes could strain it was storm clouds and turbulent seas. He steadied himself against the battering waves, the salt spray burned his tired eyes.
Captain Hillenbrand was alone on the deck. His weary crew was bedded down for the night. What was left of his crew, that is. Rocked by a mysterious disease, his men were dropping fast and those that remained were cowering in their quarters for fear of contracting it. It’s better, he thought, that they not see the worried, furrowed brow that had replaced his legendary, confident stare. They need to see a leader, not just another scared and vulnerable man.
A practical man, raised at sea by a legendary seaman of Her Majesties Royal Navy, he led with a superb blend of instinct and reliance upon the proven tools of the sailor. He always knew what to do.
He was surrounded by the unknown. A week before, all of the ship’s navigational tools inexplicably stopped working. The dial of the compass spun like a child’s toy. The barometer failed to budge in any way. He strained for an explanation, but there wasn’t one. Stranger than the failure of the instruments was the lack of daylight. It had been dark for 7 days.
It had all occurred at the same time. Right after…he tried to chase it out of his mind. The recollection surged through him and he resigned himself to allow for the possibility that his deeds had finally come to haunt him. Right after they came upon the stranded ship flying the African flag, drifting helplessly.
The Exodus was a merchant vessel. Captain Nathan Hillenbrand had lost his commission after his father had retired in disgrace. The Royal Navy felt that the name Hillenbrand would carry a negative connotation and politely and expediently forced him out of the Navy. Unable to find other work, Nathan Hillenbrand had been forced to Captain the Exodus. It was fairly easy work, being free of the regimen of military service he was able to lead his crew as he saw fit. The challenge,of course, was that his crew was also not under the regimen of military service and he was tasked with leading a crew of characters, some unsavory, and that was a daily challenge.
The Exodus, weighed down with a cargo of dry goods was headed towards the Philippines on a routine trade mission. Six days into their journey they found that their food and water supply was contaminated. Rats had not been detected during loading and had sufficiently bitten into and defecated onto enough of their food supply to render it inedible. Rum was the only consumable product on the ship. Captain Hillenbrand had done his best to maintain order, he assured his crew that with smooth seas they would make their destination before starvation set in.
It was soon after that they encountered the stranded ship. Floating, it’s main mast broken, likely due to a storm, the craft was truly helpless. As the Exodus came into sight, the weary sailors waved frantically to them to assist. Captain Hillenbrand ordered a team to drop a rowboat and board the ship. He gave them specific instructions to assess how many were aboard. If it was a manageable amount, they were to signal him to send more boats to rescue them. It was also instructed of them to “appropriate” some supplies to get them through their current situation.
The crew boarded the ship and signaled, by way of hand signals that there were 35 men aboard. Too many to allow on the already overloaded Exodus. He signaled across the waves to them by drawing his hand under his throat and simulated slicing his own throat. This was the universal signal to abort.
What happened next would haunt the most hardened of sailors and men.
The crew leader, either misinterpreting, or more sinister, perverted the signal and began to attack the crew of the stricken craft. The others followed. The Captain stood helplessly as the men hacked the crew to death. Horrified, he watched the brutal display unfold before him. Blood mixed with the salt spray, bodies fell to the deck, those who were lucky lived long enough to bleat like sheep to the slaughter.
The screams, my god the screams.
When the crew completed their unsanctioned massacre, they grabbed a meager supply of food and loaded the dingy and paddled back to the Exodus. Hillenbrand, dazed and outraged, met the returning men with a team of sailors armed with bayonets. Unable to find any other suitable option, he had them
summarily executed, their treasonous corpses tossed overboard.
After, he ordered his remaining crew to make do with the tragically obtained supplies and went to his cabin.
It wasn’t long after that it became dark. The sea kicked up. The clouds rolled in. The Exodus began its now endless spell of being tossed around by the angry waves. Then the instruments stopped working. The next morning, when he surveyed what should have been a horizon with at least a glimpse of sun…he saw nothing but darkness. It wasn’t just strange, it was foreboding.
More sinister than the darkness was the floating specter that appeared before him. Dancing on the waves, not possibly human and of this world, the skeletal face stared at him, through him and into his very soul. It haunted him. He ordered his crew to change direction at full sail. Still, there was the specter dancing in the waves, taunting him. In another change of direction, he saw it again. No matter what he tried, there it was.
Any experienced sailor will tell you, the sea is a mysterious mistress and can play games with the weary mind. Hillenbrand was beyond weary, but he knew what he saw before him. All of his rational instincts raging through him, he knew that he was dealing with something beyond the realm of the rational. It was Karma, it was payback for what he had allowed on his watch. It was his reckoning. It was the call of retribution. It was Death.
Clearly, there was no escaping it.
He heard a commotion below deck. He need not look, another, or a few more men had died. The remaining men were scared. They wanted answers. He had none, a mutiny was certainly imminent. They would come for him. If it came to that, he would let them. The next man who assumed the helm would not escape the same fate. They would all die in darkness.
As he stared into the endless, bland night he heard the screams of the helpless, slaughtered victims. The ones who had died under his watch. They danced around in his head, demanded to be heard. He couldn’t fight it, the cacophony overpowered him.
He raised his pistol to his temple, took a deep breath and one last look at his own personal hell and pulled the trigger.
As his body slumped to the deck of the cursed ship, he faintly heard the sinister, menacing laugh of the specter in the crashing waves before him.