The Black Ship

by Rebecca Nazar

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I am Sonya-Nell Elton, keeper of the North Point Light that my father and grandfather and great-grandfather kept before me. My father, Basil, named me after a place where he dwelt as a young man for eons, Sona-Nyl, Land of Fancy, where time, space, death, and pain does not exist. The White Ship, its captain a bearded man, its sexton, an ethereal blue bird that soared above its masts, bore my father to that heaven-like realm.

I loved my father’s make-believe tale as a young girl. I never thought my father mad. He possessed two pieces of evidence to support his claim: the White Ship’s shattered spar (“an object so white it rivals the purity of mountain snow,” he’d always point out) and the blue bird he had had stuffed. On rare occasion, he suggested I cradle the spar, gingerly rest its end across my lap, and then tuck a number of the bird’s stray feathers in my wiry hair. This ritual made me feel as if I was a fierce warrior of Sona-Nyl, with an ungainly-yet-mystical weapon and tribal headdress. In my enthusiasm, I swore both radiated a restorative heat.

“But my tale is a cautionary one,” he’d say as he replaced the spar and bird atop his mantel. “I’d still reside in Sona-Nyl if not for my curiosity. I desired to travel to Cathuria, Land of Hope, a realm where gods dwelt. I thought its grandness would impress me more than Sona-Nyl’s.”

This was my cue to say, “The White Ship tried to deliver you to Cathuria, but plunged into an abyss where all oceans drained. The ship returned to the lighthouse, but crashed upon the rocks, splintering the spar and breaking the bird’s heart. The bearded captain informed you that you’d never set foot in Sona-Nyl again. Oh, what you lost.” I’d feign woefulness by jutting my bottom lip and bowing my head.

“But for eons, what did I lack? When I returned, what happened, Sonya-Nell?” He’d slyly grin, prepping for a broad smile.

“You returned and fathered me,” I’d squeal.

He’d beam and laugh. “I wasn’t foolish at all, eh?” We’d hug and I’d peck his cheek.

For years, we tended the lighthouse together, amicably, finding comfort in each other’s company. Then, alas, the moon seduced my father. He gawked at its changing phases as if a buffoonish lover beguiled by a beautiful face. Silly notion, this, but I needed something to blame when, honestly, being of advanced years, he was stricken with dementia. A year passed and each day, beginning at dusk, he chanted for an hour or more, “What the moon brings,” fully anticipating the White Ship to ferry him away to Sona-Nyl.

Clear nights, when the moon was full, agitated him greatly, for thrice he nearly drowned, attempting to walk upon moonlight rippling on the waves. Moonbeam bridges, he called them, which led to the White Ship.

Life as an old maid on a sparsely-inhabited island embittered me, I’ll confess. That grim year prematurely wrinkled my skin and grayed my hair. Never one to suffer nightmares, I endured them now, but those of a malevolent black ship. Nightly, I clawed myself out of sleep with it trying to ram me.

Last month’s pregnant moon delivered a worse blow.

My father’s condition worsened considerably; his chants were replaced by rants. He wailed, “I forfeited utopia to face mortality. I feel pain more acutely, knowing none for eons on Sona-Nyl. I forfeited comfort for you. You possess no instinct for anticipating my needs and wants.”

These statements cut me deeply. If given a choice to listen to such malice or be stretched upon the rack, I’d have preferred the latter. Know this: never did my love for my father wane. I clung to memory, the sweet paternal sentiments he had expressed, and our pretend ritual. Welling tears stung my eye whenever I dusted the spar and bluebird.

Then came this month’s moon. Its pustule-like appearance pocked the night sky. A horrible omen for us both.

While tending the lighthouse light, I mistakenly breezed in front of my father. This broke his lecherous gaze upon the moon. He grabbed my arm, yanked me towards him and screamed in my face, “The White Ship will rescue and return me to Sonya-Nyl to live forever. What the moon brings is Cthulhu for you.”

His acid tone I’d become accustomed to, but this new contrived word ‘Cthulhu’, oddly, molested my soul. “Cthulhu? What of it? More nonsense? Father, the bearded man said you’d never return to Sona-Nyl, remember?” The statement played into his fantasy. I shook my head, began again. No, Sona-Nyl doesn’t exist, never existed. Such pretending as a grown man is foolish. You’re insane. Stop with this pathetic prattle. You’ll suffer pain and die like everyone else.”

Too, too cruel of me. But it brought him, somehow, the genuine him, round for a few fleeting seconds. Contrite, he kissed my cheek as penance. I hugged him back, relieved. “Bring me the bluebird,” he whimpered. With that said, the light in his soulful eyes was snuffed, victim of some darkness I could neither ward off nor fathom.

I retrieved the bird from the cottage and brought it to the lighthouse. My father snatched it from my grasp, slamming it against his chest. He took a seat again as the moon’s attentive began to whisper, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyehwagn’nagl fhtagn,” while slowly stroking and occasionally plucking the bird’s plumage.

Crestfallen, I tried to wrestle the bird away but his hissing face and strange words repelled me until my back pressed against the far wall. From this short distance, I discerned that his face was taking on a gray, scabrous complexion.

Midnight came and a great wind, rank with the smell of rot, extinguished the lighthouse light. “The last time our beckon went out was when the White Ship wrecked upon North Point,” my father said. Cackling, he danced with the bluebird over his head. “It comes, it comes.”

The darkness smothered me. I collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

The dawn that roused me cast not a cheery yellow hue, but a jaundiced light. I noticed my father gone. I rushed down the winding stairs, the first time suffering vertigo. Blue pinfeathers swirled at my hem. My knees buckled when I spotted my father’s splayed form on the landing. His neck looked broken, his eyes red billiard balls. Blood sullied the floor, oozing from his cracked skull and the bone that protruded from his left lower leg. The bluebird’s torso-section was stuffed in his mouth, which cocked his jaw violently to the right.

I suspect I wandered in shock for quite some time. When next I regained my full senses, I lay on the shoal. A skeleton knelt at my side, rousing me by trailing its fingers across my face. The long strands of its beard twined throughout its collarbones and ribcage.

With clacking teeth, it implored, “The splintered spar, where’s its location? Say you have it. May I see it?”

I gasped in horror and thrashed my arms to cast it away.

“I’m sorry I startled you, miss.” In gentlemanly fashion, it bowed its head. “Fear not; I was Captain of the White Ship. Did Basil ever mention me? What of my bluebird? ”

“Yes, he pined for your ship daily. The spar rests on his mantle. In a mad fit, he tried to ingest the bluebird and fell down the lighthouse stairs to his death,” I cried. “How were you reduced to such a state?”

“After the wreck, I was forced to swim the seas for years. My flesh could not weather such exposure. What is your name?”

“Sonya-Nell Elton.”

“Ah, in homage of Sona-Nyl. Clever.” A slight whistle sounded from his nostril holes. “You question your sanity?”

“What do I care for my sanity? My father is lost to me.”

With cracking joints, the Captain cocked his head and pointed at the horizon. “Remember him as he was, for he’s now a minion of a horrible god named Cthulhu.”

“What? He’s alive?” I tittered.

I sat up to spy a black ship that inched across the waves. Its many long oars arced and plowed the water slowly and independently, much like a tarantula’s delicate-yet-unnerving gait. My stomach lurched. “I dreamed of a ship such as that.” Panicked, I reached out and grasped his shoulder. A heat, similar to that of the spar’s years ago, shot through my arms.The sensation brought clarity and tremendous range to my sight. As if spyglasses, my eyes focused. I read the ship’s name: The Call. I gaped, disbelieving. My father served as its masthead; thick black tentacles bound him to the prow. I nearly swooned.

“The call of Cthulhu eroded your father’s mental state, Sonya-Nell.” The Captain propped me up. His soothing tone was akin to a life preserver that buoyed my unsteady nerves. “Did he reveal that the White Ship plunged into a great waterfall where all the oceans drain and from there, bestial sounds emitted?”

“Hours ago, he uttered that name and used this alien language,” I said.

“Cthulhu is a god that reigned millennia ago and was desirous to enslave humanity. The White Ship changed profoundly after exposure to his vile, bestial call. The wreckage resurrected as a black ship, The Call. It then set sail for the lands of Zar, Thalarion and Xura. Did your father mention these lands, how I suggested he not step foot on them? We sailed around them before reaching Sona-Nyl.”

Again, I shook my head.

The Call enticed the inhabitants from these lands onboard to man its decks. Poets who died of want resided on Zar, The Land of Dreams and Thoughts. They slave as oarsmen, poor souls. Notice how they gnaw at their limbs in the vain hope they’ll free themselves from the shackles.”

“They are naked and beaten, too,” I added.

“Do you see who beats them?” the Captain said.

I observed for a moment. “Yes, rabid men with scarred flesh. Demons are oft rendered likewise in books.”

“They inhabited Thalarion, City of a Thousand Wonders. All were reduced to such a state because they did not strive to fathom life’s mysteries. Lastly, notice what binds the ship together. Be not faint of heart.” He held me closer.

I could not respond to the Captain’s query, being so stricken with disgust. The Call’s hull festered. Rotting corpses clung to it; their desiccated entrails, like twine, bound the planks together. The masts were leg bones lashed end to end; tanned flesh had been fashioned into sails.

“That is the refuse of Xura, Land of Pleasures Unattained. It was a plague-ravaged place where cemeteries went uncovered,” the Captain said.

I locked eyes with my father. With outstretched arms, he mouthed the words, “See what the moon brings.” He clawed at the air. His fingers raked across my face, despite the span between us. “Do you hear Cthulhu’s call, Sonya-Nell?”

The Captain tugged my chin, turning my face away, which broke the grip my father’s odious stare had on me. “Look not upon him again until the spar rests in your hands. Retrieve it quickly. My crumbling bones cannot climb over rocks.”

“What do you intend to do?” Gazing into the Captain’s eye sockets, I detected a faint, ethereal light. I conjured a handsome face for him that smiled at me sweetly.

He took my hand and pressed it against his brittle chest. “I’ll instruct you how to destroy The Call, assisting you as best I can, but you must do the greater part.”

A jolt of fear shot through my heart. I withdrew my hand. Dust covered my palm. “I’ll not fail you or my father, Captain.”

With laboured breath, I clambered over the rocks, and then tottered along the path. A blood trail marred the way, grim evidence that my father had dragged himself down to the sea, despite his dire injuries. Hours ago, I thought him dead, victim of a gruesome accident. It seemed a pretty notion compared to his damnable fate.

The cottage was not far. When I crossed its threshold, the cozy interior seemed foreign. Madness, the monstrous, the surreal had become the norm. Never would I be the same again, or surrounded by everyday things. My sobs filled the space. I entered my room to acquire two blue tail feathers from between my mattress, tucking both up my dress sleeves so as not to lose them. I squirreled them away years ago, aware they’d fade if exposed to too much sun. Having them brush against my flesh fortified me. My pulse steadied.

The door to my father’s room groaned when opened. The spar possessed a sheen I did not recognize. As I grasped it, a splinter lodged in my right index finger. There was no pain. To cradle the spar in my arms was burdensome, given my modest size; soon, my strength waned, forcing me to drag it the remainder of the way. This struck me as an act of sacrilege, for its ivory surface quickly became dun.

A bestial din rose from The Call. My father’s shrieks, accompanied by a chorus of lowing crew, caused me to cringe reflexively, tightening my grip on the spar. Dozens of splinters were embedded in my palms when I arrived at the beach.

Only half an hour had passed, yet The Call floated close to shore. Its cesspool stench robbed me of breath. Waves did not tumble upon the beach. The sea was smooth and black as obsidian; it simmered, threatening to boil. Dead fish and fowl stewed atop its surface.

“Cthulhu is what the moon brings. Captain, assume your command. Sonya-Nell, voyage with us,” my father called.

The Captain spotted me. “Well done, Sonya-Nell; come as close to the water as you can tolerate. Tilt the spar at a forty-five degree angle.” I did so. My body trembled under the strain. “Your father prized us so much in life. The black ship will run aground to enslave us.” With great exertion, he pushed the spar deeper into the sand. This resulted in him dislocating his right shoulder. Undeterred, he switched to his left.

I reached out to stall his effort. “Enough, please, that will have to do.” When he tenderly inspected my raw and bloody hands, I added, “Why is there no pain?”

“It is pure, for it was hewn on Sona-Nyl, a place foreign to pain. You are pure, too, Sonya-Nell. Once that black ship becomes impaled upon the spar, it will crumble because you wield it and act as sacrifice.”

As if a monstrous walrus, The Call heaved its behemoth hull forward. The beach quaked; shoal rocks cracked. The starboard and port side planks split open, from which oozed a yellow viscous substance that hissed when it touched the sea, fueling the water into a rapid boil.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn,” was the refrain from those onboard The Call.

I clung to the spar and imagined it physically melded with me. The captain stood at my back, shoring me up as best he could, emitting sounds akin to an incantation and trilling birds. The tail feathers that rested along my forearms quivered.

Again, The Call lurched its bulk across the jagged rocks. Like a popped boil, the keel ruptured; flotsam and jetsam poured from the gash. The hull sank into the sand, towering over us. Terrified, I shuddered in anticipation of being crushed; even the ship’s shadow I found suffocating. But I remained steadfast, for the sake of my father.

Then came the blow, the bestial screams, blessed oblivion.

When the darkness lifted, some detritus littered North Point, but most had washed out to a sea that had resumed its regular tide of frothing, blue-green waves. I recalled sensing my father’s heart bursting upon the spar, delivering him blessed relief. Also seared to my memory were the tentacle-like bonds that held him fast to the masthead, worming back into the sea.

A large splinter from the spar remained in my possession, lodged in my ribs. The realization the Captain had not survived gutted me, for his dust powdered my body. The pain subsided as my organs and flesh deteriorated. I consoled myself with the knowledge that they functioned only as receptacles for grief, and, having endured my full share, shedding them was best. I entered the tide and began to swim, my alabaster bones parting the waves, my marrow instinctively knowing the direction to Sona-Nyl.

THE END

Rebecca Nazar’s work has appeared in Innsmouth Free Press Monster Bytes, Potter’s Field Anthology #3, Aoife’s Kiss, Lorelei Signal, Champagne Shivers, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and others. Her comical short stories will appear soon in Moon Drenched Fables, The Baconology Anthology and A Moron’s Guide to the Zombocalypse. Stephen King’s playground, the state of Maine, is her home. Visit her: http://rebeccanazar.blogspot.com/.