The Calling by Bernie Jordon
The sea is a vast and lonely place where madness lurks for those caught in its clutches. Rum is a sure-fire cure for many a sailor’s ills. Captain Giles knew how to dose the crew. He doled out double rations for those wet behind the ears. Giving them sea legs meant getting them legless. Once they had the taste for it, he had their loyalty. Sailors are not called sea dogs for nothing, but I was no dog.
Our ship, the Mary Bell, took on water and a cargo of flea infested cloth at Brindisi before setting off across the Atlantic. Sailors swore and scratched then took to their hammocks with lumps the size of hens eggs.
‘You’re meant to be the doctor, do something!’ The captain swore and cursed me but in truth, all I could do was report the casualties and deaths.
Rum is a cure for many ills but it’s no cure for plague. I kept myself sober and let rum ease the death of the rest. As sailors came to know their fate, they begged me to give their love to mothers, lovers, sweethearts, bairns. Names rung out from dying lips and fixed in my mind.
One by one the sailors fell. The sea reaped the grim reward. Night after night as the moon waxed and waned their bodies were wrapped in shrouds of contaminated cloth and thrown to the sea.
Captains Log 28th August 1756
Weather settled but clouds banking from the east. Another sea burial, the last of the sickened sailors. Now it will be a race to reach port and find a new crew before we become a ghost ship. Dr Manley failed to cure a single one. Now we are the only two souls left alive. God help us.
That last plagued sailor haunted us both. He was the only one who gave me no name to remember.
‘Curse this ship,’ he shouted in his final feverish rambling. His face blackened into one livid bruise and the remains of his blood congealed in his ears, nose and eye sockets. We hauled him over the side still warm. The sea seemed to lurch up and open into an enormous mouth of a wave with white spume. A tongue of lightening hit the crest then left us. A thundering darkness descended as if the sea was loudly digesting the corps. The captain took to his bunk with a whole barrel of rum. I never saw him alive again.
As storm clouds gathered force, I lashed myself to the mast and curled tight, imagining that last sailor’s body rearing up within the churning waves. A sudden calming silence then took hold of the sea, the ship and my own poor soul. Within that silence I became aware of a high fluting voice calling from far away. Slackening my ties, I crawled to the edge of the deck and lay flat, looking out over sparkling ripples of light. The voice turned to song, an enchanting, rippling melody in tune with the sound of the sea. A mermaid looked up with eyes as plaintive as the eyes of a seal. Her hair was like eel grass; green, long and straight, twisting with the movement of the water. Her song surrounded me, her eyes enticed me, her arms reached up to welcome me into the sea. I swear I was sober, but I was transfixed. I was deep under the influence of a mermaid’s spell.
The song wavered and I unlocked my gaze then fought with the rope around my ankle to jump into her embrace, to be with her for eternity beneath the welcoming sea. The knots were fast, my hands were cold, and my knife was out of reach.
The wind rose suddenly, and it was then I saw them, the sailors of this ship. They were tied to the sides of the mermaid with thick strands of kelp like the leather straps of horses. Scores of men fanned out around her flanks.
‘No, no, no!’ they shouted,
‘The sea is no place for you.’
‘Go to land.’
‘Take our last words.’
They shouted the names of sweethearts, mothers, lovers and bairns against the gathering storm.
Then I knew that the welcome of the sea was lost to me. My salvation was the harsh mast of the ship.
How I weathered that storm to come to this shore I cannot tell, but I survived the curse of the Mary Bell. My mind is as clear as this bright sunny day. The names of mothers, lovers, sweethearts, bairns I bring to you from the lips of dying men.
Floss, Eliza… ... …
Release me now, I pray.