by Maxwell Marais
Even from a distance we knew the whale was sick. We knew it was sick when we launched the whaleboats, knew it was sick when the first harpoon struck, knew it was sick all the long way dragging it back to the ship.
But we were desperate. We were tired, and reckless, and wouldn’t make a penny unless something was brought back to shore, and this, surely, was something.
When we hoisted it starboard it reeked like it was already rotting. By the time we cut into it, it was bad enough to knock a man over. Whales have a stench, naturally. It seeps into the decks of the ships who hunt them, into the clothes and skin and bones of whalers and it never washes out. But this was a different kind of stench. Rank, fouler than death, the stench of something dredged out of deeper, blacker depths than any whale had ever plumbed.
We found the first real signs that something was horribly wrong not long after nightfall, when we reached the whale’s organs. Andrews was the one who spotted the stuff. He turned to me, cutting spade slick with blubber and gore. “Look here,” he said, gesturing with the tip of the blade, “in the lung.”
And it was moving.
Not the lung itself, I realized, but something inside. Twitching. It was spread out through the cavity, weblike and greasy and shining like oil-slick in the guttering deck lights. The flesh of the organ was raw, yellow-white and oozing where the thing’s strands had taken root.
Andrews’ face was pale when I looked back to him. He was still staring into the suppurated flesh. “What exactly,” I heard him say hoarsely, then swallow, then start again in a voice only vaguely closer to confident, “What do you reckon it is?”
I told him I didn’t know, and then watched him keel and vomit into the sea.
By the time of my next watch, it was gone. I heard nothing more of it. But when the butchering was done and the tryworks belched the smoke of melting blubber I thought I could see a smear of it across the decks – tendrils, hazy and indistinct, visible only at the edges of my vision, weaving their way down between the cracks in the wood. Down belowdecks, into the dim, dark warmth.
It did not shake the unease from me when we scrubbed the decks clean of blood. It did not shake the unease from me that we did not find it there. Despite the heat of the tryworks’ blaze and the effort of work, something within me felt cold, and heavy as a stone. Somewhere in my mind, dread whispered: it is already inside the ship.
The salt breeze smelt of rot as it stirred the hairs at the back of my neck.
* * *
We did not catch sight of a single other living creature after the whale. No spouts were visible on the horizon. No gulls, no seabirds flew overhead. Even as we headed south and crossed into tropical waters, there was nothing. Nothing but the restless lap and lash of the sea, and air that grew increasingly hot, sweltering, stagnant. I thought of where the thing belowdecks must be festering, oily hues glinting in the darkness as it spread.
I thought I could see it some nights, as I lay awake in the fo’c’sle listening to the ship’s creaking. I would squint my eyes and stare into the pitch dark, waiting to spot its slow, creeping movement. In the daytime we found roaches and swollen bedbugs gathered into corners, legs kicking as they tumbled over each other and struggled for some impossible prize. Once, I tried to clear them away to see what it was.
There was a slick residue there, gathered like veins and shining opalescent, almost hypnotic, in the light.
One month later we crossed another whaleship. Plans were made to make an occasion of the thing, to meet and make merry. A whalers’ gam. Most of the crew were abuzz with the news. New faces! New stories! Music and dance and festivities!
I couldn’t help but feel that with each hour that passed we grew closer to bringing these unfamiliar men a curse.
* * *
It happened to Lewis, the man with the fiddle.
The sky was dusky, and the deck shook under the thud of boots as a crew-and-a-half danced and shouted and spun, as the makeshift band played off-pitch instruments and sweat and spittle flew. We didn’t even hear the first few coughs. It wasn’t obvious until the music stopped with the shriek of the bow over strings as he fell, hacking, to his knees. A crowd gathered, quieted. The man’s coughs grew phlegmy, strangled, gurgling – and then he crumpled, limp.
But something in him was still moving.
It started along his back, a sort of undulating below the fabric of his shirt, like worms under a hot sun. Then the fabric’s seams began unraveling, and we all heard a crunch as his shoulder blades arced up, bent outwards at twisted angles. Someone at the front of the crowd ran before his ribs did the same, pried open like bloodied gates as oil-slick tendrils flailed and stretched free of the flesh that held them.
The smell in the air was rank, like iron and months-spoiled meat and things that wash up on beaches at low tide. By the time the thing had burst through Lewis’ back the crowd had broken into chaos. The taste of bile rose in the back of my throat. Someone else was coughing, but I couldn’t see who through the jostling bodies between myself and the sound. Further down the deck there was a wailing cry and a heavy splash into the water below. The deck was rapidly becoming slick with – something. Blood, oil, something veined and pulsating.
I ran. Coward that I was, I shoved my way through the tumult and ran. The stench belowdecks was worse, so much worse, and I could hear something coming from the blubber storage that sounded like nothing a human could make. Down there in the dark I almost thought I could feel that thing (that sickness, that living disease) crawling its way up beneath my own skin, and I understood then that this, down amongst the remains of the whale we’d butchered, was where it had taken root. I understood that, coward or not, I could end it.
The door to the blubber room was sealed with something sticky that peeled apart into webbed strands as I shoved it open. Andrews stood in the opposite corner, hunched in a way that made it look like he’d fallen asleep standing up. The entire room felt like the inside of the sick whale’s lung, all webbed with purulent tendrils and mucus and oil. And listening very closely I almost thought I could hear it breathe.
“Andrews.” My voice sounded hoarse and unsteady even in my own ears. “Andrews, man, it’s all gone to hell up there, we’ve got to – “
He was making some sort of gurgling whine, the same sound I’d heard muffled from the corridor, a sort of pained sob, like a kicked dog. His speech sounded full of cotton. “We should never’ve broughth up thhat whale, Thomson. Shhould never’ve broughth ‘er up.” He retched, and I heard something dense and wet hit the floor.
And then he turned, very slowly, and I could see that the webbed tendrils had burst out his throat, cracked his collarbones wide and spread like viny growths across his front, had grown up through his neck and begun to protrude from his mouth and nose and the corners of his eyes.
And I choked back a scream and told him that yes, we never should have, what fools we crewmen were and what a bastard our captain was. And I told him I was sorry.
And I backed out the door, and grabbed a lamp off the corridor wall, and threw it in.
The fire that erupted burned a thousand searing colours as I scrambled back to the hatch, flames already licking up the corridor behind me. The ship, coated as it was in its layers of slick and filth, burned wildly, the gemstone hues of the burning sickness reflecting off the dark waters below as all around beams and rigging crashed and fell.
When darkness overtook me, I wholly believed it was all at an end.
But now I find myself in a whaleboat-turned-lifeboat rowed by men from the opposite ship (the ship that never burned, the ship that never knew, the ship that was still safe), asking me about the blaze they saw last night, across the water. About what happened. About what caused that spectacular colour.
And in the pit of my throat, I feel more than the answer waiting to escape.
Maxwell Marais is an author and illustrator of all things horror living in Montreal, Canada. When they aren’t frantically scrawling down the weird fiction and horror that crawls out of their brain, they can be found attempting to summon (with limited success) horrible abominations from beyond our world. Their works have been featured in such publications as The NoSleep Podcast, Thuggish Itch, and Dark Recesses Press.