by Steve Toase
We have been sheltering under the lifeboat for weeks now. With no sun to divide the passage of time I do not know day from night. I mark time in the progress of infections.
Below us is the frozen earth that does not melt no matter how fierce the fires we light. The ground is as cold as our bones. As cold as our outlook after months of surviving in the upturned boat.
The Captain says we have been here for three months, sheltered from the worst of the elements by the hull that curves above us. Never meant to be used this way, the winds scour away the caulking between the planks leaving gaps for the frost to get through. We dare not peer outside. That’s how Hansen lost his eyes, the hollows in his face echoing those in the wood.
Bumps in the ice make sleeping hard. We try to knot ourselves between them, but the contortions increase the hunger in our gullets.
We are hungry all the time. Supplies will last, but only if we are sparing. We keep it stacked up in the darkest corners, so as not to tempt us in our weakest moments. The fights are less when we are not tempted. Many of the food barrels are now just iron hoops, nails and little else, the wood burnt for what little warmth it gives.
Ma distendi oggimai in qua la mano;
aprimi li occhi.” E io non gliel’ apersi
Hansen sits in front of me as I change the dressing. I have little to pack the wounds, so scrape the caulking from the lowest parts of the hull and press the tar-soaked strands of hemp into his sockets. Already rot is starting to split the skin and I can see bone through the fissures. The packing is more for us than Hansen.
As ship doctor it falls to me to cut apart the crew. Rarely does a day pass without my gloves covered in bone dust and rotten meat.
“How’s it looking Doctor?” He asks, as he does every time I change the dressing.
“Not much better, not much worse,” I say, not telling him I have been reusing the same dressings for the last five times. He cannot tell and I dare not rake the hull again. So many big lies have been told, the little ones don’t matter anymore.
* * *
I hear movement outside in the unending storm. I do not know how anything can survive out there. The cold that reaches us under the boat is scouring, wearing air from our lungs and skin from our bones. Replacing it with the blackened shadows we already see in each other’s eyes.
* * *
The Captain does not speak to me, though I can see him watching as I try to save the crew by parts. So far I have not needed to cut shrunken meat from his limbs, but the rot he carries is far too buried even for my knife. The lies. The lies are far too deep for the Surgeon’s severance.
* * *
Maybe the sounds I hear that remind me of voices are the ship, The Eternal, crushed in the sea ice. I do not care for the sea anymore. I never did. The deal was good and the percentages were generous. I was impressed with how the Captain convinced the men to buy into such a plan, and now I wonder if that personality is what will keep us alive or what will kill us.
I watch him gather in far corners to talk to Newburgh the Quartermaster, his closest conspirator. I see them looking at me often, their faces shadowed by the lamps that burn fat and send smoke up to settle as soot on the hull above. Even through the gloom I still see them watching.
The dead are stored at the prow, stripped and stacked to make it harder to think of them as crew. I tried to convince the Captain to put them without, where they would not become hosts for disease. He resisted with sentimentality and superstition, both spreading through the remaining crew faster than any infection. All of the dead were collaborators. All of them were in on the fraud that led us to sheltering under this landlocked boat. Even though they now light the unending night they illuminate nothing. Our sins are as thick as the ice turning The Eternal to matchwood.
par di lungi un molin che ‘l vento gira
Something is moving outside. We’ve all heard it brushing against the boat hull as if testing whether the planks will splinter from its investigations. In quiet moments we joke that it makes a change from the wind finding its way across the frozen land, a sound so human we hear the voices of loved ones in the noise.
* * *
There were other upturned boats with other crew sheltered like us. At the beginning of our exile, we moved between our sanctuaries. Then the weather closed in and we signalled between us, until they no longer responded.
* * *
The book is sodden from freezing then being grasped by the Captain to his chest. I do not know how many men were lost when they went to retrieve the book from the wreck. I did ask and my queries were met with so much silence I might have been talking to the dead themselves.
Only once have I seen inside the pages, and that was by dim light. I could not make out the names of the benefactors who invested in our venture, but I could see the list of cargo we did not carry. The Captain noticed my attention and turned the page from me.
* * *
When you chisel frostbite from a man’s fingers, it’s the stench that gets you. Not the reek of already dead meat, blackened and collapsing in on itself, but the tang of broken skin and bone. Frictioned by percussion as the hammer hits the striking end, and the blade slowly but surely breaks through to the ice packed floor below. And the screams, because no matter how much you try to muffle the patient’s mouth with cloth and leather, his voice will still leak out. The whimpers are the worst.
When I’ve finished saving what I can, some of Hansen’s fingers are sutured above the second knuckle, others next to the palm. I gather up the blackened tips, lift the hull of the boat and throw them outside.
Later that night creatures come to feast, the smell of meat attracting them to circle the boat. They stink worse than any mouldering hands. Unable to see them through the hull, we listen as they fight over the meagre snack, and for a moment as I drift in and out of sleep, I wonder if instead of gnawing on the dead they press the bones into their own torsos, shaped from the amputations I’ve been forced to perform on the crew.
* * *
I notice the Captain’s ear before he tells me, the skin blackening to the colour of the night sky. I wait for a moment to sit beside him, and as I take my place he gets up and walks over to talk to Newburgh. They lean so close the rotten skin touches Newburgh’s cheek. They glance over and then turn away. Over the next few hours I watch the frostbite spread and darken and know that the Captain’s privacy and suspicion will prevent me from saving him.
* * *
The wind swoops across the landscape in bursts, like the compression from a windmill out of control, hitting the boat and threatening to overturn our cover. I look up and Hansen is standing over me, his arm stretching out until his fingers find my lapels. He sits down beside me.
“I’ve started to see again,” he says. Yellow puss glues the strands of hemp in his tar-packed sockets. I say nothing
“Not everything,” he continues. “But I’m seeing again.”
“What do you see?” I ask. I do not want to know. What I observe is bad enough.
“I see through the timber. I see us encircled. I can see through skin and bone to the rot in the marrow. The worms that nestle in the teeth and hollow us out from inside. I see through the leather binding to the lies within. I see the snow and ice and I see that there is nowhere to go.”
I nod and try to comfort him, without indulging the delusions.
* * *
When I wake the next day Hansen has been added to the stack of the dead. I ask what happened and no-one gives me an answer.
“He did not wake,” the Captain says, and I ask if I can look at the body. He turns to Newburgh as if he needs the Quartermaster’s permission before allowing me to carry out an inspection. I see the nod before the Captain allows me to proceed.
The infection had not reached Hansen’s lungs and there was no disguising the purple blotches on his neck and face that had nothing to do with the rot inside his skull. I do not say anything. The conspiracy has changed to one of silence that we all commit to in the hope that we can speak later, but the storm shows no sign of letting up and later is dying by stages.
When I rest I do not sleep. I wonder if I will make it through the night, and if joining the stack of corpses would be the relief I need, yet I still do not rot and I continue to live. I contort myself between the knolls that distort the surface of the ice. Outside, the storm continues.
e trasparien come festuca in vetro
When I wake, the noise is worse. A drilling buzz that does not stop but feels like insects trapped between skull and skin. I plug my ears with caulk but it does not stop, instead intensifying as if the sound is sealed in by my efforts. I am not the only one suffering. The only benefit from the scratching sensation is the distraction from my hunger. The Captain paces our shelter talking to himself. I cannot make out many words but watch him, wary to turn my back. In frustration the Captain kicks one of the small hillocks of ice that distends the ice where we grab our meagre rest, his toecap leaving an indentation in the ground. It takes time until we notice the hair cemented into the shattered snow.
* * *
Using our fingers we drag away the ice to reveal the first head. Soon all of them are uncovered. There are twenty two in that small space.
Those trapped do not speak, their jaws and tongues frozen below the surface, just the crowns of their heads exposed. We either stare at them or ignore them. When the buzzing stops I think I can hear the ice shifting. Frost coated eyes watch us as we settle down to sleep. After two hours I cannot take it anymore and cover the heads with the clothing of the dead. Somehow this makes it worse. Covered, I cannot tell if they are waking. My dreams are haunted with frostbitten gazes and the gnawing of unseen creatures.
* * *
“I’m a surgeon, not a butcher,” I say to the Captain.
“The past few weeks, there has been little difference,” he says. The frostbite has spread to his cheek. I can see his jaw socket through the gaps in the muscle.
I lay my saw on the floor between us and he kicks it back across to me.
Despite the cold, the food is rotten. Newburgh won’t admit it, but the food was probably rotten when it went into the barrel. We are running out of supplies, and though twelve of us have died, there is not enough to sustain us.
“If this is a solution, why those in the ground and not them?” I nod to the stack of corpses at the far end of the ship. There is a sound from outside like vast wings flexing in the air. I shudder.
“Because they are all rotten. Infected,” Newburgh says. He nods toward one of the heads emerging from the ice. “These are preserved. Fresh. Refrigerated.” He giggles.
I shake my head. Despite my current situation, there is no dilemma.
“I cannot do this,” I say. The Captain nods.
Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo
When I wake, my arms are trapped against my body with barrel hoops. The leather pad in my mouth tastes of other men’s spit. The air smells of sweat and burnt hair. With my saw in his hand, Newburgh notices I’m awake.
“We thought about eating you. Nice and fresh, but you’ll keep for a while.”
Newburgh and the Captain sit either side of one of the icebound heads. The rough edged scalp lies on the ice, and they take it in turns to dip their fingers into the skull, scraping out the contents and pressing it into their mouths. Where the Captain’s face has rotted, chewed mulch slides out to catch in his beard.
When they take their fingers from their mouths smears of grey are trapped under their fingernails. The Quartermaster snaps off a piece of skull. I think I hear a muffled squeal. While I watch, he uses it to scoop out those fragments that escape his fingers, pushing uneaten pieces into the skull’s sutures as he licks the bone clean.
I try to turn away, close my eyes. The noise alone is worse. They gorge themselves, sawing open one head after another. I watch Newburgh pluck the eyes out and pop them between his teeth while the Captain eats one tongue after another.
They saw through seven scalps before they have their fill, starved stomachs distended by the sudden meal. Unused to digestion, their bodies slide into sleep, stretched between the excavated heads. I cannot sleep. Outside the storm continues.
Later, I realise that despite myself I have slept, and for a moment I hope that the meal I witnessed was the vivid dreams of some fever, then I see the broken edges of bone pushed up through the ice and know that the feast happened.
The movements are slight at first. Friction and the wrenching of the gluttons in their indulgence has melted the ice around the heads. While I watch, they move a little, turning as if to see who has been bingeing upon them. Treating them as a delicacy.
The iron hoop digs into my arms and as I struggle to free myself it cuts through my sleeves, scraping the skin away in sheets. The Captain and Newburgh still sleep between the dead like cats upon the breakfast table. I step over them and see that in his gluttony the Captain has abandoned his book. Retreating to the far corner, I open the book and for the first time study the deceptions that brought us to dying beneath these lifeboats that are nothing of the sort.
The treacheries are complex and financial. A shell game of cargo and commerce far beyond my knowledge as a simple doctor. Even with my scant understanding, the betrayal is blatant and the theft from the creditors obvious. Across the shelter, Newburgh and the Captain stir. I have few choices now. Maybe if I can reach the other upturned lifeboat, I can shelter there before they kill me. I know they have only let me live for so long because they cannot cure themselves of the rot the cold brings and believe I can. This final deception is to themselves. I hesitate whether to take the book with me, but no evidence is hidden here in the wastes. I lift the edge of the boat, splinters and frozen brass tearing my hands in their own ways.
Outside the air is whited out, and at first I think it snow that clogs my eyes. Snow does not reek of scorched hair. Across the ice sheet creatures with faces of spoilt meat split open the heads of those imprisoned in the ice. I watch the bone dust settle on them and on the ice sheet, obscuring those trapped further down, twisting as if their stomachs are distended with indulgence. Behind me, the lifeboat tips, the Quartermaster and Captain emerging with their rot. I watch them find their place amongst the diners. Now they need no saws to open the heads of the trapped, their frostbitten fingers rotted away to expose bones sharpened to points. There is no second boat for me to shelter under. I do not know if I will join the feast or freeze. I look down at my hands. Already I have started to rot. Somewhere in the distance vast wings beat and the bone dust swirls.
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Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Frankenwald, Germany.
His fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Analog, Three Lobed Burning Eye, and Shimmer amongst others. Five of his stories have been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, and one for Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 3.
He also likes bonsai forests, old motorbikes. and vintage cocktails.
His debut short story collection ‘To Drown in Dark Water’ is now out from Undertow Publications www.undertowpublications.com/shop/to-drown-in-dark-water.
You can keep up to date with his work via Patreon www.patreon.com/stevetoase, www.tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, and @stevetoase on Twitter
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