Every month The Rogue Verbumancer posts a photo on his blog and demands the people of the internet write a short story about it, posting links to every entry at the end of the month for all to see. He calls it the Pictonaut Challenge and you can join in too, if you like, for it is open to all. This is my one for January.
“Whassat cap’n?” enquired First Mate Bessie, a simple but well-meaning fellow who put out to sea by mistake as a boy and never quite found his way back home to mossy Bristol.
“Hm?” the Captain mused enigmatically, a light spray of salt sparkling gallantly in his rear fetlock, “Oh, nothing sailor. Just something my mother used to say.”
The first mate returned to his duties, scarcely realising this was little more than a lie. If only he had known the truth; that Captain Lance didn’t even have a mother, much less one spouting proverbs about vespidae sphecidae, and that the owner of that quote was someone – or something – altogether different… But he did not know, for as I mentioned he was but an accidental sailor, with nothing interesting or special about him whatsoever. He didn’t even have the decency to be an orphan.
All of a sudden Bessie was saved the humiliation of further defamation of his (very boring) character by a shriek of ‘Land Ho!’, issued by the chap in the crow’s nest just as the ship ran aground with a sickening ker-thrunch.
“Ouch,” said Bessie, who had been knocked off his feet by the impact.
“Wail,” said the chap in the crow’s nest, who was no longer in the crow’s nest but had fallen out of it and landed in a heap on deck.
“LOL,” remarked Captain Lance, who had a slightly warped sense of humour. “Let’s go ashore and dig for booty.”
The diligent crew set about removing their shoes and socks and then they all jumped over the edge of the boat and into the warm aquamarine ocean. They didn’t need a row boat on account of having run aground, as I mentioned before. The water lapped around their ankles and, as they paddled and giggled and sang, many totty wee tropical fishes gathered around them and nibbled their toes.
Captain Lance did not remove his shoes or socks, because he had certain immutably Victorian morals with regards to revealing his ankles. He did however smile benevolently at his men as they prannied about like children, for in terms of their intellectual and emotional prowess that is exactly what they were. They could not be expected to have strong feelings of apprehension at their bare flesh being sighted, but the Captain was emotionally old enough to consider the ramifications. So it was that he leapt into the water still wearing his very best boots. They were not entirely waterproof, but you would never guess from the look on his face that there was sea leaking into his socks or a fish nestled in by his ankle.
The gallant captain strode enigmatically through the waves; crew following eagerly behind with looks of respect and pride amongst their whiskers. He was the sort of fellow one could cheerfully follow to the ends of the earth, such was his charisma and ability to pay them on time every month.
Moments later they were gathered on the loveliest beach any of them had ever seen. The smooth golden sand felt soft as silk beneath their weather-beaten feet, and palm trees waved coquettishly and threw down ripe coconuts to drink cocktails out of.
“It is a tropical paradise,” murmured Doctor Hands, the ship’s cook.
“But what’s that over yonder?” said Bessie, pointing with a trembling digit to a thing that was over yonder.
They turned their attention therewards.
The thing in question was a rectangular structure made out of wooden planks, standing impertinently atop a grassy slope with white paint peeling off it in ribbons. The box appeared large enough for a man to stand inside, should he be so inclined, but he would not be able to do much else within such a space – and anyway the only door was a small square affair that even the most malnourished orphan would struggle to access. As the crew drew closer, this door flapped open in the breeze to reveal devastating darkness within.
“I don’t like it,” said Doctor Hands, voicing the thought within all of their breasts.
“What is it, Cap’n?” asked First Mate Bessie, noticing that the Captain, far from being trembled by fear as the other men were, appeared slightly irritated by the presence of the box.
“It is a relic,” gruffed Captain Lance, “something from a bygone age. Once upon a time these boxes were used by beach visitors who wished to change themselves in readiness to go into the sea, but who did not want to be seen in a state of undress.”
An indigo ripple of consternation ran through the men.
“But who would want to go in the sea, other than sailors such as ourselves?” asked the young cabin boy, Hamster McGee. “Ornery folks are frightened of it, and there has been a ban on swimming nigh on a thousand years.”
“Ah, Hamster,” Captain Lance sighed sadly, “these boxes were not used by ornery folks, nor ordinary ones neither.”
He looked as though he might elaborate but then lapsed into silence, staring once again out over the ocean in a brooding fashion. He stared for such a long time that the air began to cool, and a spectacular sunset of orange and gold washed over them, and First Mate Bessie was just about to tap him on the shoulder to ask what they ought to do next when he awoke from his reverie and ordered them to set up camp.
The thing was done in the twinkling of an eye, for sailors are by nature good at building fires and shelters and things like that. They are always the sort of men who were in the scouts as soon as they could walk, and arts such as knotting and foraging and catching fish with their bare hands come as naturally to them as breathing. Once all was ready they sat in a circle round the fire and sang rousing songs of the old times, including young Hamster McGee who wasn’t even alive then.
Captain Lance Wynette, however, sat a little way apart from the group on a rock that looked a bit like an old hippopotamus with three legs. He was not in the frame of mind for singing, although this in itself was not unusual – he was handsome, yes, but completely tone deaf. He barely heard as the men bellowed another chorus of ‘My Love Is Like A Woman I Fancy’, so intently was he staring at the old box on the top of the hill.
Nobody knew how long he sat there, but everyone had fallen asleep and the embers of the bonfire were all but dead by the time he stirred. With a quick paternal glance over the snoring bodies on the sand, he tiptoed over the dunes towards the scabbit structure.
Seeing the box had brought many a memory to the surface for the Captain. The smell of ink was in his nostrils as he approached, the taste of brine on his lips, and the indelible mark of a sucker lay heavy on his heart.
“Cassandra,” he moaned gently into the night air, as a single tear rolled down his cheek.
The small square door clacked loudly against the frame, and suddenly the Captain could see a blue light shining in the viscous darkness.
“It can’t be,” he breathed, drawing closer. He rubbed his eyes, disbelieving, even though he had perfect eyesight and he knew that what he was seeing was real.
The blue light gazed calmly at him, unblinking.
“Cassandra?” he whispered again, standing up on his tippy toes and gazing into the cupboard. “Is that you?”
“What time d’you call this, you bastard?” came a velvety voice from the blackness.
Captain Lance Wynette did not have time to reply before a tentacle shot out of the door and pulled him inside head first.
But what became of him after that, dear reader, is a story for another day.