The old man stared at me from the bow of the vessel, his cracked lips pulled downwards into a grimace underneath his filthy beard. The armpits of his undershirt were stained yellow with sweat. I could smell his stench; indeed, there was no escape from it. No way to avoid the rancid odor emanating from his every pore. My only solace was the fact that my own odor was likely to be as keen an assault on his senses as his was on mine.
I stared back at him from the stern. Oh, how I hated him. His crazy bloodshot eyes – the way they jutted out of his emaciated skull, one somehow bigger than the other. His thin, bony fingers – how they never let go of the flare gun, even as he slept. I hated his snoring most of all, the coarse vibrato of it. Everything about him enraged me, though at this point I was almost too fatigued to even feel rage.
“What?” he said. His voice was that of an old sea dog.
“I didn’t say nothin’,” I replied. My own voice was dry from thirst.
“Yer eyes reveal more than yer words ever could, laddy.”
“Don’t call me laddy.”
The old man leaned forward close enough for me to taste the stink of his breath. “What should I call yee then? Missy?” He cackled with laughter, falling to his backside as he did so. Not for the first time, I wished I was the one holding the flare gun.
“Just shut up.”
“Aye, mayhap missy be more appropriate for yee. All yee seem to be able to do is bitch and moan.”
“I said shut up.”
“If only I had a dress fine enough for yer Highness. Mayhap I can cobble together one from –”
I made a move towards him and he promptly levelled the flare gun at my chest. We locked eyes with each other for a long couple of seconds. Then, I sat back down. The old man relaxed his arm.
“Why don’t you just kill me?” I croaked. “We’re as good as dead men anyway.”
The old man said nothing. I had finally managed to silence his buffoonery, if only for the moment.
Content to enjoy the temporary reprieve from his voice, I leaned against the side of the vessel and stared out into the open water. There were no waves; the flat surface of the water glistened underneath the cloudless sky. The shimmering mirror of the ocean stretched as far as the eye could see, a spectacle that was equal parts beautiful and terrifying.
That night, under the light of a full moon, I stood over the sea captain as he slept, his raucous snores long banishing all thoughts of sleep from my own mind. The lifeboat swayed ever so gently. I stared down at the old man’s gnarled face, finding myself breathing in time to rhythm of his grunts and wheezes. I could see all the way into the depths of his nostrils as they expanded and contracted, bristling with disgusting, grey, wiry hairs.
I gripped my knife tightly by its wooden handle. It was a small flip knife, a gift from my Pa when he heard I was to be a sailor. I had never before seen such pride in his eyes as when I’d told him the news. I knew the knife to be expensive, that is, relative to my Pa’s meagre earnings.
Though the blade was small, I believed it was sharp enough to easily pierce the sea captain’s throat. I watched his throat vibrate with the depth of his snores, almost hypnotized by the up and down movement of his Adam’s apple. If he were to wake right then, he would see the wild eyes of a feral madman staring down at him. He would see that I was deranged, and it would be the last thought passing through his mind as I plunged the knife deep into the soft tissue of his neck.
But he did not wake. He continued to sleep.
Sighing, I lowered my arms to my sides. There would be no killing tonight, not by me anyway. I folded my knife and replaced it deep into my trouser pockets, where it continued to remain hidden. At least, for the time being.
I must have dozed off some time during the night because I was startled awake by the old man’s howls. He was bellowing at the top of his lungs and as I sat up, confused and disoriented, I realized that he was bellowing at me.
The sun was high in the sky and the heat was palpable. The old man was standing in the middle of the lifeboat, silhouetted against the sun, ranting incomprehensibly and waving the flare gun around like a lunatic. At first, I feared that he’d discovered my knife, but I could feel the reassuring weight of it on my thigh as it rested in my trouser pocket, hidden from sight. I held up my hands.
“What are you raving about, old man?” I demanded. “Speak English!”
The old man narrowed his eyes at me, but he slowed his raving. “Yee,” he growled shaking his gun hand at me accusatorily. “Yee been into the food while I slept. Yee thought I would’na notice. Yee thought me a fool! A sleeping old fool!”
“Aye!” I exclaimed. “I do think you to be a fool. Yet I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Liar!” he shouted.
Not letting go of the gun, he raised the ration box from the floor. The lid was open and inside I saw the last of our remaining food rations, bits and pieces of wheat crisps and some sugar cubes. There seemed to be considerably less than I remember. He shook the box at me and the contents rattled around pathetically. I licked my lips. He continued his tirade of accusations.
“This be yee plan, be it? Grow fat and strong by stealing my food, then when I grow weak you’ll take the ship. Do yee wish to be captain so bad, laddy?”
“You’re mad! You ate those rations and are too looney to remember doing it.”
The old man continued, heedless of my words. “Well, it’s not going to work. Your plan. I be no fool.” And with that, the old man crouched down with the box, steadying the flare gun at me with one hand, and scooping the remainder of our food rations into his mouth with the other hand.
“No!” I shouted, pinned down by the threat of execution.
The old man cackled, crumbs flying wildly from his mouth. He continued to shovel fistful after fistful of food into his face, until there was nothing left in the box. I lowered my head in despair and exhaustion.
But he wasn’t done. He reached into the box of provisions and took out the flask of fresh water that was stored there. He rattled the bottle, cocking an ear and listening to the swish of the remainder of our fresh water supply.
He froze and looked at me. Slowly he got to his feet. When he spoke, his voice shook with rage.
“I know we’ve had our share of differences, yee and I,” he muttered. “But I did not think yee would stoop so low as to drink from my flask without consent.”
I was astonished to see that there were tears in his eyes as he spoke. He was genuinely heartbroken.
“Yee have doomed us, boy. Death will come for us soon. But he will come for yee first. I will not let a treacherous dog like yee outlive I.” As he spoke, he began to reach for the cap of the flask, his intent to drink the rest of the water, putting the final nail in our coffins.
I went for my knife.
At the same time, the lifeboat rocked violently, impacted by something heavy and fast.
The sea captain’s eyes widened and as he fought to steady himself, his weak fingers lost their grip of the flask. We both watched in horror as the last of our drinkable water tumbled into the sea.
“No!” I screamed and made to reach out for the flask, which was bobbing in the water.
I felt the old man’s fingers dig into my arms as he wrenched me back into the boat. As he did so, I glimpsed a grey shadow rushing towards me from the water’s depths. A giant shark exploded out of the water, tearing into the air that my arm had been a moment ago. I was showered by the spray of the sea, staring in horror at the abomination mere inches before me – a monster of black soulless eyes and gnashing teeth surrounding a cavernous black hole that was its mouth.
A sharp explosion assaulted my ears. It took me a moment to realize that the sea captain had fired the flare gun directly at the shark. The bright red flare slammed into the side of the shark’s gaping maw. The water frothed and churned as the shark thrashed back into its depths. It did not resurface. After a while, the water stood still.
We sat still for that while, the sea captain cradling me in his arms while I rocked back and forth in shock.
Then, the old man spoke. “Yee ate all my food. And still, I save yer life.”
Fresh rage washed over me, eliminating my exhaustion and shock in one fell swoop. I turned on the sea captain with a righteous fury, mounting him and raining blows to his face, chest, and stomach. I didn’t care anymore. We had no food, no water, no flares, and no hope. As I struck him, I screamed down at him, “You’ve killed us, you fool! You crazy, senile, stinking, decrepit, useless, crazy, OLD –”
My rant was cut short as I was bashed in the side of the head by the empty food ration container, which the old man had managed to grab by the handle and swing at me. I fell to the floor of the lifeboat next to the old man and we both lay there panting, staring up at the sun, neither of us with the strength to continue to fight.
As I lay panting up at the sky, I glimpsed a shadow circling us above. The shadow drew closer, then fell out of my sight. However, I heard the fluttering of wings approach our vessel. Painfully, I turned my head to face the source of the sound.
A Masked Booby had landed on the edge of the lifeboat, towards the bow. It stood there, regarding us with its stupid looking eyes, its black and white feathers ruffled from its flight. It hopped towards the sea captain, who was still lying on his back with his eyes closed, trying to catch his breath, oblivious to the bird’s presence.
“Don’t move,” I told him, running a tongue across my dry, cracked lips.
The old man opened his eyes and, without moving his head, turned his eyes towards the direction of my hungry gaze. His eyes widened as he saw the bird’s approach.
Summoning the last of my remaining strength, I made an effort to sit up as slowly as I could. The bird froze and so too did I, my breath halted mid-inhalation.
Then the bird hopped forward again. Amazingly, it jumped down into the boat and, perched very close to the sea captain’s face, began to peck at the crumbs that had fallen from the ration box and were now scattered on the floor of the lifeboat.
I slowly reached into my pocket and removed my knife from its hiding place. The sea captain, still frozen on his back, saw me flick the knife open, the blade glinting in the sun.
He whispered through the side of his mouth, trying not to move his lips. “’Tis bad luck to kill a seabird.”
I ignored him and moved into a squatting position, gripping my knife with murderous intent.
The Booby tilted its head, then continued pecking at the crumbs.
I pounced. The bird panicked, flying directly into my arms. I attempted to bring my arms around it, stabbing and slashing at the air. The bird squawked as I drew blood. I managed to get a hold of it and pulled it down into the boat, stabbing at its body again and again. Eventually, it grew still.
The sea captain sat up and stared at me in disbelief. He was drenched in bird blood.
My stomach was growling at the sight and smell of the bird meat. Before I knew what I was doing, I was tearing into its flesh with my teeth, its blood and entrails spilling to the floor of the lifeboat. Its blood was warm and thick, but it quenched my thirst all the same. It tasted divine.
I don’t know how long I sat there feasting, but eventually I looked up at the old sea captain. His face was an odd mixture of horror, hunger, and longing.
With my own hunger and thirst now satisfied, I found myself feeling pity for the old man. I held what was left of the carcass out to him and attempted a friendly smile, though my face was covered with blood and feathers. The old man only hesitated for a moment, then he too was partaking in the raw bird meat.
We both knew that the bird meat and blood would only sustain us for so long. We also knew that the odds of another bird coming our way were very slim. However, there was a larger source of blood and meat stalking us from the depths; one guarded by teeth and scale. The shark may have been injured for now, but it would be back soon enough to collect the meal that had previously eluded it.
With bellies full of meat and a newfound sense of teamwork, we began to make preparations. Using my knife, I fashioned stakes from the wooden rungs of the emergency rope ladder, whittling the ends to deadly points. The old man busied himself with the ropes of the ladder, twisting the two lengths around each other to make one thicker, stronger rope. Once this was done, he tied the end of the rope around the handles of the ration box, using his expertise in sailing knots to secure the rope to the box with a series of ironclad, fist-sized knots.
Once we were done with our preparations, we nodded solemnly at each other. The sun had begun to set, casting its reflection across the still waters of the ocean. We took a moment to gaze upon it, basking in its miraculous beauty.
Then, the sea captain threw the ration box affixed to the rope into the sea. The box floated on the water’s surface, crimson spreading from the bird carcass within. I scattered assorted bird entrails into the water around the box, deepening the red hue. The two of us gripped the rope with both hands, our fingers turned white, our eyes fixed upon the sea. We waited.
As we waited, the old man spoke. “Laddy…” he began, then stopped. For once in his life, words appeared to fail him.
I nodded. “I know, old man.”
The lifeboat began to rock beneath our feet. The sea was swelling. The shark had evidently received the scent of blood on the water.
We saw it coming this time. Its dorsal fin cut through the surface as it rushed towards the boat, towards the ration box. It drew closer. Closer. We gripped the rope tighter.
The monster burst out of the water. Once again, I saw its mighty jaws, its jagged teeth. The ration box disappeared into the void of its gullet and its mouth snapped shut over the end of the rope it was affixed to.
As soon as the jaws clamped down, the sea captain bellowed, “Heave!”
I planted my feet against the side of the lifeboat and pulled with all my might. We felt a great resistance. Rather than pulling the shark towards us, our lifeboat was pulled towards the shark. It thrashed in the water, attempting to shake its prize from the rope.
I grabbed a wooden stake and thrust it into the shark’s face. The stake hit its nose, but did not pierce the skin.
“Again!” the sea captain yelled, struggling to hold the rope.
I grabbed another stake and stabbed again, holding it with both hands and aiming for the beast’s black eye.
The attack found its mark. The stake drove deep into the eye of the shark, spilling more blood into the water.
Wounded, the shark thrashed wildly. I heard the old man utter a startled yelp, then he tumbled into the water, still holding the rope. Before I could react, both he and the rope disappeared below the surface of the frothing red water.
I leaned over the edge of the lifeboat, shouting, “Old man!”
There was no answer. The water began to still, to darken.
“Father!” I shouted.
The old man suddenly burst from the water, gasping for breath. He held the length of rope out to me. I ignored it and pulled the old man into the boat first. Together, we reeled the rope into the boat until the still, lifeless body of the shark appeared on the surface of the water, the rope trailing from its still-closed mouth, wooden stake protruding from its eye socket.
It took us several minutes to drag the body of the shark into the boat. Up close, it actually looked smaller than it had in the water. Nevertheless, it was a feast that could sustain us for several days, perhaps weeks.
The old man and I looked at each other and together, we began to laugh. The sun set to the sounds of our laughter, bringing a night during which perhaps, finally, I would get some sleep.
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Tense read, well-written story. I write historical fiction as well, so the one thing that stood out to me is that I'm confused about the time setting. The old man speaks like he's possibly 18th century, but there are some other points that feel modern and pull me out of the story. It feels a bit fantastical, which I liked!
Thank you very much for your comments! Admittedly, historical fiction is not my forte, so I went for more of a surreal approach, keeping the timeframe and setting ambiguous. How I resolve the paradox in my mind is that the captain acts like he's from the 18th century because that's the era he romanticizes, but in reality it's closer to the 20th century :) Also, they are dying from dehydration so they're both a bit loopy at this point.
Hey! Your story came up in my "Critique Circle" email so I checked it out. Your story actually sparked a bit of curiosity in me so I did some research. Please never try any of the survival techniques mentioned in your story.... Nonetheless, it was a very well-written story about two people coming together in a life-or-death situation. Great read and the lesson is even better.
Haha thank you for your comments! Glad you liked the read. I hope I'm never in a situation where I'd have to think about trying any of this. Probably wouldn't go down well...
A good story, well written.
thanks very much! glad you liked it.