It was the feeling of the cold metal needle piercing his nose that woke him. The roaring burning in his throat was the next sensation he was aware of, and the iron warmth of his blood dripping into his mouth was the third. Douglas tried to move, tried to scream, but the stitching was completed quickly. He could not tear his face away from the tight sour dampness of the canvas that formed his traditional makeshift sarcophagus and which swallowed his encrusted cries.
There were murmurings above and around him. Even in the depths of his shock, he could identify some of the voices. Gunther, one of the Swedes or whatever they were, whispered devout and passionate prayers over him that seemed to carry a solemn and flinty echo from the middle pews of an ancient and deserted Scandinavian chapel. Douglas tried to reach out to him, but the material holding him was too strong, too weighty for his limbs that had so recently spent countless minutes struggling against the vicious tides and howling squalls forcing him again and again beneath the tossed foam. Cracked Thomas was, in his usual way, less charitable to the supposed corpse than Gunther. He brusquely pushed the kinder man aside and berated him in the near-unintelligible accent that took influence from every corner of his known world. Where once he had sounded absurd, now he had the voice of all the Earth’s ghoul.
“‘E went ova fivveteen minutes agow. Ya poot the steetch en ‘im ta tie ‘im in. Naw Jack Tar gost is gunna tek him. Wat’s the good en yer prayin’? Threw ‘im ova bevore ‘e teks the rast of us to ‘is fate.”
Gunther, getting the necessary gist of his meaning, stepped away. Douglas tried to squirm, tried to give some signal that Atlantis had not claimed him, that he had come back to them to paint and haul again, but his body was not ready after its previous exertions. He was almost completely paralysed, the blood still dripping steadily- not gushing- around and between his gritted teeth. Douglas noticed he was sweating now too, and the sweat from his forehead was mingling with the blood. He could only taste the latter and not the former; his mouth was still too full of the remains of the waves to notice any fresh salty addition.
“Lads! Lads! ‘Eave ‘ooooooo! ‘Eave ‘oooooo!”
Men who had been keeping a respectful, mournful distance stepped uncertainly forwards in response to Cracked Thomas’ cries, all of them hoping that another would arrive before himself to be forced into that duty which they could not fortify their own stomach enough to perform. An even greater fear flooded through Douglas, but it did nothing to revive his flagging physicality. His form stayed so unwillingly rigid on the deck that, had he had a mind to it, he would have wondered if he was not truly already dead and only granted some post-mortem purgatorial awareness of unhappy life going on without him as a fitting punishment for his multitude of sins.
He felt rough hands lifting him. This was it. Cracked Thomas was directing the doings with the same heave-ho cries he had already given to spur the action, and the crew eventually joined in with his bellowing. Douglas tried to summon something, anything, from somewhere, but he could not. As he was carried towards the side of the boat, time didn’t slow, as one might expect, but rather sped up. Before he knew it, before he could contemplate the full horror of the inevitable fate he was meeting head-on, he was ensconced in the same cold and the same wild sound and the same fury that had ravaged and pummelled him only minutes before.
There was little that Douglas could do but submit; his body gratefully rose to meet the intentions of his spirit, and the customary thrashings, struggles and strivings of the drowning- had he even able to achieve them in his exhausted state- were not to be witnessed by his old fellows on the timber behemoth of a ship above. A large wave sent him spinning towards the depths as if he was caught in the riptides of his adolescent memories of Corryvreckan, that kelpie-strewn maelstrom with its hungry heart that insatiably devoured the fragile boats of fishermen. Once down beneath, he did not rise again for a long time. Instead, he floated so seamlessly and slowly beneath the waves that it was as if he was lying- resting- on the seabed with the whole burden of the ocean around him as his vast sepulchre. He was settling into this sleep and letting the drowsiness fill his aching limbs when he suddenly felt himself flying upwards with tremendous velocity. He knew he had surfaced when the light of the brightest, bluest afternoon showed through even the thickness of the embracing canvas.
A seagull swooped down and sat on his stomach.
“I could ‘ave sworn to God hisself that Cracked Thomas woulda been the first to come to us from that vessel.”
The seagull laughed once it had finished speaking. Another came and plopped itself down on his legs.
“It should ‘ave been. Our lad ‘ere was a victim of pure carelessness. ‘Alf of sailors don’t know they’re bloody born. Too much of a rush, too much a-fearing of the skipper to even check proper if one of their fellows ‘as got the blood still pumping in ‘im. He did, you know. And fer his glory, they gave ‘im a collop of the old brutality to see him out. HEAVE-HO.”
The second seagull laughed now as it imitated the onboard chorus. Douglas tried to speak to these strange creatures, these seabirds that communicated with voices and words so familiar and so friendly in the glittering dark.
“Don’t try, son. Don’t try. We know what you’ve got to say.”
It was a third gull who had spoken as it perched on his forehead and started picking at the stitching on the canvas hammock.
A herring gull joined his friends, perching on a knee. He was followed swiftly by an oystercatcher, its orange beak gleaming proudly in the sun, which took up position on the opposite leg. It ruffled its slender monochromatic wings and called out to the heavens. The song was met by an albatross, which did not descend and take up position on Douglas’ now-crowded waterlogged frame, but instead hovered a few feet above him.
“‘ave you been to Greece?”
The oystercatcher asked the question and moved up to assist the third gull with its work at the unstitching. Douglas, still not able to speak, faintly shook his head.
“Shame. An experienced boy like you, as young as you are- would’ve thought you’d managed it.”
Half of the canvas covering Douglas’ face flopped open; his head filled with sweltering white light and burned. The oystercatcher continued its monologue.
“The most beautiful girls in the world live there. Of course, all sailors ‘ave got their favourites. I’m sure you did. I ‘ad a love there; she used to bring me great big plates of fried octopus when the ship came in. I ‘ated it at first, loathed the stuff, but what’d she give me in return for finishing that plate- I’d ‘ave slurped down a w’ole Kraken. Shame we can’t talk to you in life as we do in death- I’d ‘ave asked you to pass on my fondest regards if you ever made it over.”
“The first thing ‘e hears on entering the afterlife is your dusty old lusty memories. What a welcome!”
The herring gull, having put his fellow to silent shame, untangled the final threads. After finally adjusting to the sun, Douglas found himself staring into the eyes of the albatross.
“Figures of eight on the top deck, dirty songs with no meaning and the sacred ones to hold. Goodbye, fare thee well, in the lowlands low, by the ivory castle glittering beside the streams of lovely Nancy. Carved puppets, elephants and kings, inscrutable and silent, bare or wrapped in silk; presents from the Indians. Quickly inked tattoos, leering faces and hearts redder than blood. Muscles broken, falling in the muck and shit below, stumbling to bed, to not sleep, to not sleep again. Circles of ice and the sun burning layers of skin from your back. Bubbling wounds, loose black teeth thrown overboard. Forcing down dry bread and flat beer more like sludge. The stink of the tar always everywhere, inescapable, locked in your nose. An itch below the trousers, an itch that drives you to the point of madness after stopping at Ratcliffe. Maps that can’t be read anymore and stars that can’t be trusted. Mermaids winking below the waves when the summer turns the seas warm. Hot springs in the snow, rivers frozen and no way down. The stink of old clothes and flower garlands around the neck. Dark flags on the horizon, the cannons taking what little’s left of your hearing, if not your legs. ‘My son John was tall and slim, and he had a leg for every limb…’ Was the bulging pouch at the end of it all worth it? Never, but always.”
The albatross stopped reminiscing and came and sat on his chest. The rest of the respectful seabirds went soaring back up into the distant blue, screeching and screaming joyfully to each other.
“All that’s over now. Good riddance and bad luck. But all drowned sailors have got to go somewhere. We don’t belong on land, not anymore. That’s why they bury us at sea. What else can we do but keep an eye on our friends, and fly alongside ‘em, follow ‘em, and live off their scraps? Was it any different when we was living? When we go out the first time, as boys, we swear off other ways of life for good- even in death. We might not know it- or accept it- at the time, but it’s true. This is our belonging. Eternal.”
Douglas spoke for the first time.
“I’ve heard it before. Old hands would talk about it sometimes, late at night, just before the candles went out. The birds of the dead.”
“The birds of the dead. More blessed than the living- just.”
The albatross took off and hovered above, waiting. The last of the canvas fell from Douglas’ body, and then he too was hovering, beating his wings against the finest, the thinnest of breezes. Below, his ship continued on its course, far from coming in, pounded by hail and rolling with the thunder. But this high- this high- the going was clear and clean and safe and shining. Tears filled his eyes.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com