Chapter 5: Leviathan
Perhaps it was the unusual earnestness of that morning’s conversation, or the drastic change of environment, but it seemed as though my nightmares had broken free of whatever stable had until now held them. I dreamt that night that I had been stirred from my cramped slumber by a strange, emphatic bleating. The mournful cries rang through BeauSoliel’s corridors.
“Don’t you hear that?” I asked of Napoléon.
He gave no reply. I stood and peered into his bed. Finding it empty, I crept to the door, determined to find and silence the source of this caterwauling. I found the door had been bolted shut from the outside. It must have been some mistake on Napoléon’s part or perhaps the pitch of the ship had knocked the bar into place. Regardless, I would not allow that wretched sound to poison my night’s sleep.
I threw my weight against the age-weary wood, succeeding in lodging several splinters into my shoulder, but the door didn’t budge. Again I lunged at the door, and again. Finally, at long last, I was rewarded with the agonized crack of the ancient wood bar snapping off its hinge and clattering on to the floor. I threw open the door just in time to see a stout, little brown goat tearing her way through the narrow hall. Her udders swung pendulously, jarred by her frantic gait. Behind her, a frayed yard of rope, the other end of which had been looped about her neck, flailed wildly.
Recalling Napoléon’s toast to her kind, I followed the terrified beast, thinking her to be the unwitting pawn in one of his pranks gone awry. She ran through the ship’s bowels at a furious pace, and I did my best to keep up with her. She ambled clumsily up the *ladder to the main deck, where she promptly tucked herself into a shadowed corner beneath the ladder to the poop. I knelt down beside the terrified beast, and she buried her head in the crook of my arm. I could feel the shudder of her heart against my chest.
“It’s fine girl. We’re safe,” I whispered to her, stroking her neck gently, but the draw of her every muscle spoke otherwise.
I struggled to focus my attention on the black waters beyond the ship. The sea flit playfully, brimming with the pale luminance of the full moon. No, this glow was not from the moon, but from something rising beneath the tumble of black waves. The phantom light pulsed, as if signalling. It moved slowly at first, happy to drift lackadaisically in the distance. Then, it propelled forward at so frenzied a pace, I braced myself against the ladder’s rungs, certain that impact was imminent. Yet there was none. My cloven-hoofed companion too was aware of the strangeness stirring in the sea, and voiced her protest in that same baleful moan which had first awakened me.
Soon there came a sound to rival the poor goat’s cries. It was a whine at first, drawn quickly into a bellowing howl that seemed at once mechanical and yet cursed with all the agonies of life. Whatever the source of this noise was, it set the water around it sloshing and churning over the bulkhead. The sea grasped at our ship with frothy white hands, trembling and desperate. These were hands that yearned to spirit men away, anxious to fill waiting graves, carved into the seabed. When their clutch fell empty, the ephemeral fingers splattered to foam in defeat, reduced to puddles on the deck.
Then, something slithered and curled over the bulkhead far more dreadful than the mere wisps of an angry sea. It twirled and undulated, a blind serpent, pale as death and guided by lunacy. The roving appendage was joined by another, and yet another milk-fleshed tentacle reared up over the side. The first wrapped itself about the capstan, and in the moonlight I could clearly see the circular teeth at its tip, translucent blades that could tear a man to a memory. The others, four to my recollection, took root wherever they could grapple on and held fast. The ship lurched starboard, listing hard. Unable to hold my footing I tumbled from my shadowed keep and towards the waiting sea. I managed to catch myself, clutching desperately at whatever fell within my grasp and finally capturing two belay pins in the vice of my fingers.
As I stared down into the churning inkwell sea below, my eyes were confronted by a true conundrum. There in the waters was what appeared to be a giant squid, like some scrap of sailors lore wrench forcefully into being. It’s tentacles extended, I looked down into its waiting beak and noticed on either side, there lay a ladder. As the haze of bewilderment cleared from my head, I realized that the body of this beast was in fact some make of vessel, complete with windows and hatches. It was as though the craft had been grown upon the framework of this beast, rendering it both servant and carriage to the men who created it.
Two giant eyes rolled with the creatures head, it’s gaze falling only momentarily upon me. I was of no interest to this leviathan. I ambled back to my hiding spot, shuddering at what was to come.
I peered through the slats in the ladder overhead, clutching to my cloven hoofed companion, each of us shouldering the other’s fear. I wanted desperately for another pair of human eyes with whom I might confirm this dread beast’s presence.
To my dismay I saw near the entire crew present, lined in neat rows before the thing, faces all serene. None seemed aware of my presence, or for that manner anything around them. It was as if they were in a trance. Nothing mystical mind you, but the sort of malaise that falls upon one when undertaking a well-rehearsed task. Napoléon stood in front, hands folded across his chest. He seemed almost bored by the tediousness of it all.
Then a pair of hands fumbled their way up one of these bloodless palps, joined by a head of mouse brown snarls crowning an otherwise unremarkable man. With an exasperated grunt, he leapt onto the deck, promptly wiping his hands on his worn blue jeans. Knowing this to be a dream, I wondered why my mind would bother to create such a dull being.
His companions, who fast ascended these wan cables, were far more in keeping with the usual denizens of my nightly terrors. They towered over the crew, standing a good head and shoulders higher than even Napoléon, the tallest of the lot. Their skin was blanched a sere pewter, and in its setting their eyes shone red as any wine I might have abandoned to Paris. Eyes like albino rats. My mind had fabricated my own Ratfolk, given just a peppering of inspiration from Cricri’s mutterings.
“Howdy,” the unremarkable man drawled.
“Howdy yourself,” Napoléon answered back in a perfect American twang, offering the man a hearty handshake.
“Oh, good. You’re civilized folk,’ the man cooed. “Been dealing with all sorts of n’er do wells since I agreed to this. Just the other day, I sat and had tea with a piss yellow Chinaman.”
“Well, at least they can be trusted not to sneak around behind your back like those shifty Brits,’ Napoléon replied, his gaze burning through the shadows which served my cover.
As his eyes met mine, I heard his voice echo through my head.
Napoléon led the man up to the poop deck, where he promised they might enjoy the “best view.” I held my breath as they passed overhead, fearful even the strum of my heart’s beat might give me away. Had they looked down, I’d have been easily seen. It was silly to be so cautious in the atmosphere of my own mind and yet it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to wrestle with the idea that this was mere fantasy.
For the next hour, I watched as teams of men heaved crate after crate over the side of the ship. The clatter and whine of block and tackle straining underweight of the cargo so pervaded the air that I began to hear a kind of music in its squeal.
The wooden boxes were quickly snatched up by idle tentacles, and drawn down into the abyss behind the wall. Then, those same tentacles raised several new crates aboard, with surprising delicacy. It was an exchange of sorts. There must have been an entire crew beyond the bulwarks, loading barrels and crates into those savage arms one by one. A crew peopled by Ratfolk.
Forgetting myself, I shuffled forward hoping to catch a glimpse of these monstrous sailors. The goat doe, who shared my hiding place, latched her teeth to the seat of my trousers and urged me back into the shadows with a forceful tug.
Peering through the slats, I watched as this new payload was lowered aboard piece by piece. I could plainly see a cask marked “Whiskey” swinging precariously from one of the fleshy protuberances overhead. The thought occurred to me that these were very likely the men’s rations, delivered to them not at port, but instead amongst the surging tides of the Atlantic. Such a practice would certainly deter “jumping ship.”
When the last of the load had been received, Napoléon and his companion came bounding down the stair, Napoléon stumbling on the last.
“Well, I don’t know how to thank you!” the American declared.
“Think you might be able to hitch us a ride part way? We’re heading the same direction after all.”
After some deliberation, the man nodded his head. “I can take you to just off Chincoteague? Will that do?”
“That’ll do nicely,” Napoléon replied and with that the Ratfolk and their garden-variety accomplice slipped over the side of the ship and into the night.
The tentacles slipped back behind the wall with a tremendous splash. Then the sound of something moving with maddening alacrity through the waves could be heard, and again the ship lurched as two tentacles clasped the cat-heads and began towing her hurriedly forward.
“How-DEE!” one of the crew members enunciated in a far less effective imitation as he passed Napoléon. “HOW DEE DOO!”
They both laughed as they played with the word on their tongues.
The crew was beginning to slip lines about the newly acquired cargo, readying it for storage below. So tasked, I hoped to move unseen amongst them. This, of course, was impossibility, as I had won the affections of a very amorous and regrettably verbose goat. She bayed and bleated her gratitude and I soon found myself recipient of many a nervous glance.
While Degaré was nowhere to be seen, Aladdin had scouted me out of the crowd. He stood atop the capstan, citrine eyes fixed upon me. Napoléon too had soon plucked me from the crowed and promptly shuffled me off to the galley, both goat and cat in tow.
“I’ve really outdone myself this time,” I murmured.
Napoléon grimaced his agreement.
“One of us will get the cat in the morning,” he hummed, rubbing his back tentatively.
“Oh Aladdin,” I affirmed, lifting the marmalade cat into my arms. “Yes, we’ve met.”
Napoléon only shook his head and muttered some manner of apology to Aladdin.
The ship jostled a bit, tripping upon the waves it no doubt lacerated under its terrific speed.
“That craft…the one that’s towing us” I marvelled, “She’s astounding, we must be moving..well, a hundred nauts at least!”
Napoléon snickered at this, “That’s ridiculous Michael!” He paused, giving me a bemused look, “Do you even know what a naut is?”
The goat, who had stood by my side all the while bleated her reprimand at Napoléon. He was quick to deliver a scratch behind her ears in apology for being terse.
“Well I see you’ve met Queen Anne,” he remarked, bending to plant a kiss on the goat’s nose. “She’s my mother-in-law, but we’ve always gotten along very well.”
“Mother in law? This is undoubtedly the singular most perplexing dream I’ve ever concocted!” I said, near drunk on the ridiculousness of it all.
“You think this is a dream?” Napoléon said with palpable relief. He briskly rubbed Aladdin’s head cooing to the kitten in French, “You see, everything’s fine.”
“Well, yes, of course it is. It’s all too bizarre! The goat aboard ship, the squid or what have you…I mean, really Napoléon, if you could so easily adopt dialects then why would you insist upon speaking to me with that silly accent?”
Napoléon gave me a look so raw with rage that I felt as though I’d been skinned before him.
“Because I am not an American,” he said with controlled vehemence, “and I have never been more certain that I am not British. Regardless of who holds my country hostage!”
“No, but you are one third Italian, isn’t that right?” I mocked. It was silly to banter with this dream born shadow of my friend and yet I couldn’t help myself. Rarely is one given the chance to tuck a jibe in conversation without fear of recompense.
Napoléon glared at me.
“Yessss!” he hissed, then promptly turned his back to me, as though the sight of my face were suddenly too sickening to be endured.
I struggled to piece together an apology, failing again to realise the preposterousness of expressing remorse to a figment of my imagination.
“Go back to bed Michael,” he fumed. “Go back to bed and wake up.”
The chill in his voice turned my stomach. I had no desire to discover if the real Napoléon’s rage could be so carelessly roused, though I doubted it. I left her majesty, Queen Anne, in Napoléon’s care, and did as he bid me do.
Aladdin saw me to my quarters, sniffing curiously at the demolished arm of the bar lock that lay in splinters and shards upon the floor. He was even good enough to stay and see that I got back to sleep. He made no protest over the fact that my belly served as a luxurious pillow for his use.
I only had one other dream that night, which while strange, paled in ridiculousness to its predecessor. The second was brief, producing a spectre of Napoléon seated at my bedside. He leaned in close to my ear and whispered, with rye on his breath, an apology.
“*Je suis désolé…”
“Désolé? Sorry? Sorry for what?” I muttered tongue crippled by the clutch of sleep still upon me.
His lips grazed my jaw, as if he’d wanted to kiss me and lost the nerve. This incarnation of Napoléon, far from being cross with me, rest his head upon my chest for some time. It was a strange and awkward pass of minutes. I lay motionless, uncertain of how to gracefully proceed, till at long last he retreated to his bunk.