Never saw myself as the historical fiction type. Yeah well.

The following is a short story I wrote very recently.  Please let me know what you think.  Forgive any formating issues, not very fond of this interface in that regard.  I hope you enjoy it.

Cargo

A Short Story

by

Zak Bowen

     It was nearly dawn, the match warmed The Good Doctor’s aching fingers as it rested against the bowl of his pipe.  Incessant sea breezes made his muscles quiver.  Fatigue plagued him.  It had been a long time since he was able to stand on his own.  It had been longer still since he enjoyed even the most trivial of comforts, such as a puff of his pipe.  He closed his eyes as he inhaled.  He hadn’t been this calm in what had to have been weeks.  Smoldering tobacco bathed his face in a cherry red glow which made the jagged scar along his left jawline look even more fierce than it truly was.  The mark, which traveled from just below his left eye to less than an inch from his jugular vein, had only graduated from flesh wound in the past few days.  It was sure to be a grim reminder of a voyage never meant to have been made.

With his right hand he flicked the spent match off the starboard bow.  He watched as it fell to its new dark-blue home.  The match struck him as lucky to have finished its voyage, given that his own was only partially completed.  The estimated four month expedition into Southeast Russia had doubled in length due to unpredicted difficulties, as did most of the expeditions he had ever heard of.  It was to be another few months until they would see their home again.  Difficulty seemed the theme of this twisted trek through the forests West of Vladivostok.  His mind, weary from exhaustion, struggled to tally the departed.

…Donovan, Lyons and O’Shea make twelve, the English brothers make five more.  If we do in fact make it back to inform their loved ones, there’s sure to be much grieving done in Aldershott on their behalf.  All told, our crew of thirty men has been reduced to a mere quarter of its original number, give or take a few unfortunate corpses.  What am I thinking?… to label the dead members of this crew as unfortunate would suggest that the survivors have good fortune spilling from their cups.  My cup is not full.  Nor is any other cup belonging to those still sharing in this horrid endeavor.

A silver pocket watch with an engraving that read, “Time is but a series of heartbeats, may you never forget that one could not possibly exist without the other.”, sat ten miles away, lodged between a couple of large rocks on the forest floor instead of the breast pocket it was meant to occupy.  All but confirming the watch’s implication, time seemed to stop in the moments his heart did while his hand feverishly scoured an empty pocket.  “No!  Shit!  No No No!  Where the hell is it?”, he screamed, frantically looking around on the planks around him, hoping madly for a glimpse of silver.  Having caught no such glimpse, he turned and headed toward the stairwell that led to the cargo hold.  Catching the toe of his boot on the edge of a loose plank, he toppled over, landing on his side with a thud.  The impact knocked the wind from him.  His pipe flung from his lips, slid across the deck, and launched itself overboard.  Startled by the fall, he immediately began to cough and pant.  Panting turned to weeping.  Weeping turned to anger.  Anger turned to ambition.  He pulled himself up with help from the sill of a nearby porthole, and began stomping along the teak deck in a manner that was as completely out of character as his ranting and raving had been.

He slammed the stairway door against the wall as he opened it and dashed down the stairs like a child on Christmas morning.  Halfway down, a flash of hesitation came over him.  He stopped in his tracks and gazed hypnotically down the stairs to the deafening dark below.  Behind him, the wind blew the open door against the cabin wall.  Tick… tick… tick… tick.  He raced back up to close it.  He gathered his thoughts, still clouded by anger.  A mixture of courage and rage forced him slowly down the stairs.  Having reached the bottom, he lit a lantern hanging on the wall and held it in his right hand as he entered the room.  The hold was impressively large.  Much bigger than the ship looked from the outside.  It was mostly empty.  There were a few small boxes in the corner as well as sacks of food and other rations.  Along the far wall he noticed a handful of bird cages with several species of birds in them.  He counted seven birds altogether.  Two of the seven were lying dead at the bottom of their cages.  Most likely the result of trauma given the circumstances of their last moments alive.  Their fate held no consequence, the birds were of no concern to him whatsoever.  His target lay ahead.

The six by ten box sat in the center of the room draped in a sheet of burlap.  It stood seven feet tall and seemed like double that.  Even with his aggressive disposition, it frightened him.  Fear was not a fair description of an emotion such as this.  His left hand darted to his jawline, tracing a path with its middle finger.  It was still tender, as it sent a sharp chill through his skull and down his back.  Weakness consumed him, hope evaded him.  These were harsh times he was sharing with this wicked box.  Panic took hold as he realized more than ever that he was alone.  More alone than he had ever been.  The men upstairs had been keeping their distance for fear of catching some terrible foreign disease, and now the memories associated with his pocket watch were all but doomed to fade into oblivion.  Still, two of the men upstairs had saved his life.  To those two men, and nobody else, he owed completion of his task at hand.

He was locked in a trance by the sight of the looming monolith.  That moment, constructed of but fifteen seconds, seemed like days.  Above him, no fewer than six stout irishmen sang drinking songs with obnoxious pride, as Irishmen are wont to do.  At his left, five large birds made the wretched sounds that five large birds make.  Surrounding him on all sides, the ocean bellowed its maddening, perpetual cacophony.  He hadn’t registered one decibel uttered by any of them as he inched his way toward the ominous cloth covered box that his anger so contently drew him to.  He stopped not three feet shy.  His arm stretched outward toward the burlap covering, halting but four inches away.  Silence poured over him like a wall of water threatening to drown him as sure as he stood there.  It built up like a roaring crescendo, until as if by divine intervention, he reconsidered.  In one swift motion he drew his hand back down to his waist, clutched the hilt of the dagger on his hip, and took a large step backwards.

His senses came back with a bullet as he scrambled to find a place to sit down.  Placing the lantern on the ground beside him, he dragged one of the boxes from its corner to where he was standing and had a seat.  He could hear everything now.  His heart sounded as though it were going to tear its way through his chest and flop around on the floorboards for a spell.  Again, he began to weep.

     Without my watch, this heart of mine might just as well burst as it would keep on beating.  That was the last piece of her in my possession.  Am I such a fool as my actions might portray me to be?  A menagerie, they said.  Ohhh, what a spectacle it will be!  Dublin be damned, they said.  A little adventure might do you good, boyo.  Take your mind off of the past they said.  …and what an argument I put up.  Whiskey isn’t as much a friend to me as I think it is.  I’m learning that much.  Though I long for its company now.  

The box was neither dead nor alive as it stood motionless in front of him.  All at once it seemed to speak, a quiet whisper of a sound seeped across the gap between them, echoing for a moment until he finally acknowledged it.  What’s this?  The waking beast?  “Seems I’ve got you at a disadvantage,” he said, as the low rolling growl hit his ears.  “I am not afraid of you.”  He spoke more to himself than to another, as if he weren’t sure he was really hearing the heavy panting from the other side of the burlap.  The same panting had serenaded him just before the wilderness split his face in two.  Shaking and covered in sweat, he taunted, “I do so hope you’re comfortable, laddie.  We have a lengthy journey ahead, the two of us.”  His newfound arrogance merely a futile ruse, he was indeed afraid.  Fear all but strangled him into submission.

     If this place revealed itself as hell, I would not require convincing.  I doubt very much that I’ve earned this fate.  Yet here I am, the devil in front of me, foolishness behind me, and these infernal birds…!  Won’t they stifle themselves long enough for me to think?  It will be at least a month or two before we get home.  How does anyone expect me to sleep down here?  Lord have mercy on a beaten man.  Lord let be what will be.  

He imagined hurling the lantern into the sacks of wheat and flour to his left.  Hypothetical flames ignited the foodstuffs, setting the ship ablaze. In his mind, he took the bottle of animal sedative from his bag, drank it, and drifted off to dream of her.  Imaginary flames escorted him to Avalon.  His head was racing with these plans.  These delusions.  Glorious paths of promise that were to lead him out of this grotesque situation.  Such a pity, as it were, his heart knew that none of those paths were cleared for travel.

His clammy hand atop an empty breast pocket, he could see her hazel eyes right there in front of him.  Eyes he prayed would never leave his thoughts.  He recalled the reason he came on this trip in the first place.

     Forgive me for wishing your memory away.  What would you tell me to do?  What should be done?  Perhaps forgiveness would beget forgiveness.  You were always better at it than I was.  I dare not forget my training.  A fortnight in disrepair would not excuse something so unprofessional in civilized surroundings, so why would these surroundings be any different?  Even a murderous wretch like the one before me deserves a few square meals now and then.  To let it wither away and die would render my life’s work a waste of time.  I won’t stand for it.

     “Wouldn’t you agree, laddie?  Why shouldn’t I treat you professionally?  A veterinarian the likes of myself ought be embarrassed to even ask such a question, no matter how grim the doctor-patient relationship may be.”  With a labored grunt, he stood again to try his bravery.  “One might argue that I was intruding in your territory.  One would be right in saying so.  Still, a bit harsh, your reaction.  Wouldn’t you say?  You’ve made a bit of a monster out of me.  A lucky thing it is that cholera took the only one to which my appearance held any consequence.  That’s how life is forcing me to see it.”  Having limped his way across the room, he opened one of the barrels to his right.  It was filled with salted meats.  Mostly goat and sheep.  He pulled a slab from the barrel and inspected it in the light of the lantern.  “This certainly won’t be your finest meal, laddie.  Still, you’ll be glad for it.”  A heavy snort to his left brought a cautious grin to his altered face.

Being careful not to get too close, he grasped the slab of meat with some tongs and slid it between the bars, leaving it sit near the edge of the cage.  He watched, holding his breath.  The meat didn’t move for a matter of minutes.  “Laddie?  Should I have cause for concern?  Perhaps you are smarter than I’ve allowed credit for.  What did I tell ya earlier?  Professionalism guaranteed, laddie.  Outside of losing my watch at your expense, I hold no grudge.  Certainly none worth losing my self-respect over.  Have at it.  I know damn well that you’re hungry.  Your last meal was thankfully deprived of ya, so as I stand here.”  As if he were expecting an immediate response, he was disappointed to see the meat remain.  “I’m going to go over there and throw some seed at those awful neighbors of yours in hopes their beaks might be distracted and grant me a moment’s peace.  I trust I’ll return to departed mutton.”

He turned and started towards the bags of birdseed, listening for any signs of stirring from the box.  He heard none.  He entertained the thought of removing the burlap sheet from its resting place, almost instantaneously his heartbeat sped up to three times its normal rate.  He was not ready.  That much was clear.  The sound of his heart slowed down, the rapid thuds were eventually replaced by a slow tick… tick… tick…tick.  Startled, he stopped what he was doing and furrowed his brow inquisitively.

The sound of blood-caked claws against hardwood meant a successful feeding.  He hastily pitched a scoop full of birdseed across the floors of the cages along the wall and hurried over to see that the meat was no longer there.  “Right, laddie.  I’m off to get some rest.  Do try not to kill me before I wake.  You’ve already had your chance.”

Feeling the weight of the day upon his aching shoulders, he headed for the few sacks of flour against the wall in hopes to find a moment of slumber.  He sat down, said a prayer, and thought twice before blowing out his lantern.  In the dark there was no ruckus from the upper deck.  The birds did not stir.  Even the sea was humble enough to let The Good Doctor rest.  Silence, like a warm blanket, cradled him tightly.  In the dark she held him as they let the box lull them to sleep with a gentle tick… tick… tick… tick.

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