Upon the Wind
We were five days out of a resupply stop in Cape Verde and bound for the New World when the heavy fog came on us. Thick like smoke as though it begrudged the very light of day itself, and made it nigh impossible to see the man beside you. Only the riggers working topmast could see beyond it, and just barely. It stayed with us all day, and at dusk St. Elmo’s fire danced around the masts and spars. Our captain urged calm, but belowdecks the men muttered about ill omens, crossing themselves or making obeisance to what totems of good luck they carried.
The wind rose once, and I swear by my bones as it passed through the sails it sounded like nothing so much as a scream.
Our sailing master was the first to fall. They came for him in the night while the poor man stood his watch. Those of us below decks heard nothing, but the hands on deck claimed to have heard the creaking timber of an approaching ship, the landing of boarders over the side. Neither torch nor lantern would penetrate the fog, and morning found the man gone and the ship’s compass destroyed. It wasn’t until later our bosun found his body tethered to the bowsprit, disemboweled for the fish to feed on.
Barbary corsairs, perhaps, or raiders sailing out of Morocco, our captain insisted. Yet save destroying our compass, they’d made no move to interfere with our sails or helm, no attempt to take our cargo or seize our vessel. Still, we were merchant smugglers, pirates by the laws of some lands, and our captain ordered each man to take up what arms he had.
The fog sailed on with us that day, and throughout it we were wary men, vigilant for the flapping of strange sails.
I was assigned to the night’s watch, and as before I heard that craven scream upon the wind, and than another from the captain’s cabin. Myself and another seaman burst into the room, only to find him impaled upon a marlinspike, drenched with sea water. Through the cabin window we saw it: a great gray ship made of wind and rain and lightning. Clinging to its lines and working its decks were men of smoke and flame and hatred. The drowned and damned too awful even for Davy Jones’ locker to contain.
I never truly knew fear until I saw their faces. The man at my side collapsed raving to the deck at the very sight of them.
Then the ship vanished into fog.
The next day my shipmates voted me from quartermaster to our new captain, and by consensus we tacked hard west towards the Caribbean. Without our compass we could only navigate by sun and stars, and the fog robbed us of all starlight. Our course lay in the hands of Lady Luck.
Thus began the daily routine of our hell. No matter the wind we could not outrun the cursed fog, and each night they would come for us. The wind would scream and we knew one amongst us would die. At first we thought to secure the helm and lock ourselves belowdecks at night, but at dawn the flayed and drowned corpse of the bosun was found in forecastle.
There was no safety for us. They took whom they wanted, when they wanted. Those seaman who happened to see them often went mad. Some remained so.
I understood then that it was our fear they wanted, as much as our deaths. We were to suffer.
We were not good men, but even we did not deserve this torment.
I understood as well that they hated the light. Those sailors with the brightest lanterns remained safest through the night.
I do not know to which nation the island with the lighthouse belonged. We came upon it at dusk after weeks of torment, and it was bright, bright enough to push back through the fog. It cut away at it like a knife flensing meat from bone, and allowed our ship to slip out.
We were free.
We sailed hard for the lighthouse, pursued by that damnable fog, our ears ringing with those horrid screams. But the wind favored us, and as we neared landfall it was left writhing in our wake.
The helm in my hand shuddered, and there came a great groaning and snapping of timber from the bowels of our ship. With a lurch our passage halted, the ship careening starboard, sailors tossed about the deck and rigging.
We had run aground on some hidden promontory or reef, I knew not which.
St. Elmo’s fire rose atop the masts, and the rising wind carried upon it a foul scream.