Captain Lawson stood in front of the wall-sized painting of the Battle of Melusinae, where he’d died.
He did not hear the wind blowing or the chilled waves pounding the rocks far below the inn. He did not hear Madame Shirley, the proprietor of this place, speaking to him, as she usually was or the lead crystal glasses clinking with rough chips of ice and fingers of gin.
Captain Lawson was too busy trying to understand where they were all going, his men—the men he’d commanded in that ill-fated battle, now so many years ago.
Captain Lawson had spent his youth the same way all young men did: dreaming and wondering about the mysteries of the world. Why nothing invigorated him like sea air, why women always smelled so good, where the spirit went after a man died—but it had all come to mean nothing, in the end. After all, he’d died, and he hadn’t gone anywhere, had he? Except back to this inn, where he and his men had spent their last night before they set sail for Melusinae, when they were hard, ruddy-faced, blood-filled men.
The captain absentmindedly palmed a loose finial on the back of his chair. It was getting harder to hold onto solid objects now. That was one of the things that had surprised him most when he was freshly dead—that he and his men could still touch things. That was probably why they’d all come back here, to the Inn of the High Cliff. There were lots of opportunities for touching.
The inn had provided Captain Lawson and his men with much comfort over the years. They’d first arrived when the Madame’s great grandmother—or was it her great-great grandmother, or one still greater?—had been the proprietor here. He’d seen many ladies come and go, step in the front door veiled in a rosy blush of innocence and be carried out, wizened and broken, on a bier. He remembered the Madame on the day of her birth, though now her hair was grey and her breasts lay like shriveled potatoes atop her dark corset.
The Madame hadn’t hired a new girl in a while now, but exactly how long he didn’t know. Business wasn’t what it used to be, she said.
But why? The captain squinted his eyes at the painting, at the thick green whorls of oily sea. His eyes focused and unfocused rapidly, as if he was trying to trick himself into seeing a movement that he knew wasn’t really there.
Melusinae. A place of such horrors in his youth. It was to the port of Melusinae that the Northerners had stolen so many of his people’s women, sold them into slavery to fat, greedy men with too many jewels and too few scruples. Great grandmothers of girls who worked here now. He wondered if they knew that, knew the degradation their ancestors had known at the hands of these brutes.
Judging by the casual indifference with which these young little birds regarded the painting, he thought they must not.
Once, not long ago, he had perhaps gotten too rough with one of Shirley’s girls, pinning her to the bed while telling her, in gruesome detail, what he would have done to her if he’d been one of those Northern slave masters. She’d squealed like a trapped piglet and wept and later Shirley had scolded him. But underneath his apology he still felt glad that although he was now too insubstantial to properly kill a man, he could still overpower a small, naive girl, still make her listen to him when he spoke.
Back when this painting was commissioned, right after the war, no one was even willing to say the name Melusinae aloud. The painting had cast a pall over the room when it was first done, as if the room was stacked with three thousand corpses. Certain normal topics of conversation were avoided out of reverence. Grown men would take their caps off in its presence, and Captain Lawson could still detect the smudge where a widow had thrown herself against it, howling with grief.
Captain Lawson remembered the painter’s face but not his name. A thin, pale fellow, womanish-looking almost. There were some folk who said he was a ghost himself, that he’d been at the battle, but Captain Lawson didn’t remember seeing him there.
Melusinae had boasted few survivors, and neither he nor (to his knowledge) any of his men had discussed the battle in any great detail since they’d returned. Still, the little fellow had gotten everything right: there were the orange billows of fire, bright and hot as Captain Lawson remembered them. And there was Captain Lawson himself, arrested in time, arm raised, shouting orders to his men as the frigate rocked sharply leeward—he’d been dimly aware at that moment of the Trafalgar, next to his own ship, bursting into flame—and then his last full memory: the cannon fire burst onto the deck, splitting his ship in two…
After that, it was all just fragments: that quiet feeling of sinking, of loosening, as his blood drained into the green sea. The deep blue blackness that dimmed, brightened, dimmed, as if on the breath of some unseen leviathan. And then the sudden feeling of rising, rising, skimming the water, voices coming closer… and then the faces of those long-ago girls as they stood at the window, stock—still as they watched his men stream up the side of the cliff, pulling themselves over the edge with wild-eyed desperation, the dank, drowned souls clawing toward warm, fluttering hearts.
A dull smack on the back of his head jolted him out of his reverie. “Are you going to have a drink, or aren’t you?”
Madame Shirley stood behind him, rocking a sapphire-blue bottle back and forth in her hand; the liquid inside sloshed and churned like the sea below.
“What?” he said stupidly, although he’d heard her perfectly well. With a shiver of panic he wondered if he would soon lose his ability to taste gin, too.
The Madame frowned, then went back behind the bar and started filling a glass for him. Filling it too full, he could see. She bent her head over it and her once-smooth, once-white neck turned into an accordion of red turkey wrinkles. Her eye, the one not covered by the stark shock of grey hair that fell over her face like a sagging, threadbare sail, glanced upward at him. She knew what he was thinking. How could she not? Since she had stopped entertaining his men personally, she and the captain had become the closest of companions. There was something that happened to a woman, around the time her hair begins to turn grey. Something that made her more like a man, wiser, easier to talk to. Captain Lawson was grateful for it and frequently wished he would’ve understood this while he was alive.
She leaned over the bar, pressing the drink into his hand. “I said, here’s your drink, Captain.”
He took it, ducking his face close to the glass, breathing in deeply through his mouth. Of course, he could not really eat or drink anything. Smell and taste were perhaps the ghostliest of human senses, better appreciated by the dead than by living men. A dead man, for instance, could last a week on a single glass of gin just by inhaling its essence. He’d once been proud of this, as if he’d earned a secret privilege by passing through the harbor of death. But today Captain Lawson would have sold his stripes for a real drink. Today more than any other day in the ages since he’d been stuck on this cliff he felt the weight of this particular sorrow clench around his heart like a lobster’s claw.
Madame Shirley took note. She was no longer young and pretty enough to distract him properly, but perhaps she could cheer him a little. “You know,” she said. “After Melusinae, when all of you old dogs started showing up at her door, my great Granny figured she was just going to have to change her business model. I mean, what living man would want to come here and mess around with a few pretty girls with all you dead-and-gone fellows hanging around?”
Captain Lawson smirked. “I remember.”
“And for a while, she was right as rain. Business was bad, wasn’t it? But then word got around and by gum, she had to start turning fellows away.”
“Sure she did. Before she got the idea that she could double her profits selling tickets.”
Madame chuckled. “Granny was a consummate businesswoman, so they say. I’ll give her that.”
They exchanged polite, reminiscent smiles for a moment, and then, to the Madame’s chagrin, the captain drifted back to the painting. He squinted at it, listening almost—as if he were expecting a bolt of lightning to flash across its surface and illuminate everything he still did not understand.
“Shirley,” he said quietly. “Why are all of my men leaving?”
Madame Shirley regarded him. He was starting to look more and more like a broken old grandfather, lost and forgotten in a time that belonged to younger men. A sudden wave of sadness pushed her gaze aside, back toward the bar. She pretended to be busy wiping up a spill. Shirley hadn’t wanted him to ask this question, and she hadn’t wanted to answer it. She had hoped the Captain would have figured it out himself.
“Well,” she said slowly. “I expect it’s because of the Tempest Fugit.”
The finial that Captain Lawson was fidgeting with came off in his hand. He made to throw it at the ground but faltered, thinking better and attempted instead to pocket it. The knob fell to the ground with a loud knock and the man—the live man—sitting next to Captain Lawson jumped up, spilling his drink.
“That’s it!” the man shouted, though his voice trembled. “I just can’t come here anymore—”
“Now sit down, Mr. Ballard, and stop talking nonsense,” said Madame. “You know very well that there’s nowhere else to drink for miles around. Unless you want to take a gamble on that swill Barney Madson’s got going in his cellar.”
She smiled, refilled his glass, and nudged it toward him.
Ballard eyed the drink, then cast a furtive glance to the seat to his left, toward Captain Lawson. On any other day, he probably would have stayed, but he had started drinking early that morning and was fortified with spirits.
“I think I will, Madame. I think I will take a chance on Madson’s. That is, until you decide once and for all to get rid of all these damned dead-and-gones—”
The wall of freezing air that hit him was enough to throw Ballard off his barstool and onto the floor.
Madame just sighed, watching the spectral form of Captain Lawson pummel the man with fists that could not really do much harm to living flesh. Can’t take the salt out of a sailor, she thought, and not for the first time. That was the problem with having died in battle, she supposed.
“Now, Captain, that’s about enough,” she said, as Ballard’s whimpers grew more pathetic. Her back was turned and she was adjusting a stack of bar towels beneath the register.
The truth was, though, that the lack of whooping and cheering that would normally accompany such a spectacular bar brawl disturbed her. Lawson and his men were no longer even a curiosity worthy of a cheap tour book. Half of her customers could not even see the ghostly sailors anymore, and the other half… well, there was no other half. The other half were the customers gave up coming, who had moved away, to better, happier places in the new country, taking their troubles with their wives, their dissatisfaction with their jobs, and their money with them.
Only she and the girls could truly see them now, the old dead-and-gones, in that same way only girls and women can truly see the very young.
When she heard the door slam, Madame Shirley finally looked up.
There’s one paying customer I’ll never see again, she thought. “Well you certainly taught him a thing or two—”
But instead of standing before her, inflated with the exhilaration of the fight, Captain Lawson was sagging against the frigid windowpane, peering out at his men as they jumped, one by one, off the cliff.
She came around the bar and stood near him. Just beyond the salt-spattered glass, there was a line of ghostly sailors, one after the other diving headfirst off the edge of the cliff into the sea below. How awful this must be for him to watch.
“You still have that wonderful fragrance,” he said without looking at her.
His voice was so soft and hoarse, so unrecognizable. “Like sweet peas in my poor old mother’s garden.”
Madame felt a tear creep into the lines around her eyes, as a memory shimmered unbidden to her mind—the last time she had seen him looking so vulnerable, nearly forty years ago. The last time he had made love to her. Or the nearest thing to it, that is. She was suddenly flooded with sorrow for the man, whose world had passed out of being more than 300 years ago.
“Your grandmother smelled the same way,” he said. “And her grandmother before her. There was one of them, in there, had the most beautiful black hair—putting your face right in it, you felt like you’d sunk into the Elysian fields and you never wanted to come out. But I expect it’s all rotted away now, and her lovely white flesh with it.”
And then suddenly, just like a river diverted, her sorrow turned to such a magnanimous, dizzying terror that for an instant Madame felt it was she who was diving headfirst off the cliff.
Captain Lawson, however, took no notice.
“There goes Ensign McAuliffe,” he said. “Came from a shipwright’s family on the Old Coast. And see three behind him there? I apprenticed with his great-grandfather. Good fellow, that old man. It’s a terrible pity I can’t remember his name now…”
“Why don’t you go out to them?” she asked. She hoped the question sounded compassionate. She hoped he couldn’t hear what she was thinking beneath it: why don’t you go out to them, and maybe they’ll convince you it’s the right thing, to let the Tempest Fugit take you, too.
“I’m sorry about your business, Shirley,” he said.
“Oh, Captain—” she faltered. The Tempest Fugit. It only comes every 300 years, she thought. Don’t curse yourself to 300 more years of this… this old place won’t be here by then, and where will you be? “I suppose… I suppose this old place is dying anyway, and I don’t have any daughters to pass it onto. I suppose places just have their time.”
“I suppose they do.”
Madame cast a furtive glance toward the painting of the Battle of Melusinae. The largest sea battle in the history of the known world, they said. A thousand ships, and this man here, Captain Lawson, the hero at the head of it all, who died making these shores safe against the insidious slave masters to the North.
And it had been wonderful. The war had ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity that had lasted for—how long? A hundred years? Two hundred? A long time, measured against any man’s life. People had paid homage to the dead at Melusinae for quite a long time. But it had been so long since then, and so many generations from both countries had lived and died, and since then new countries had been discovered, new contraptions invented, new wars had been fought over different things that Captain Lawson and his men wouldn’t have even conceived of in their own time. It had been so long ago now that the ideals Captain Lawson had fought and died for were starting to crumble once again, and crumble into different directions this time. Directions that he should never have known about, because he should have long ago been eaten by the fishes in his watery grave.
She’d grown up knowing all the stories, all the folklore. But the young people today didn’t seem to, the young people growing up in the town—no, it wasn’t a town anymore, but a city with strange city ways of doing things, new laws and permits and pieces of paper that said you couldn’t serve liquor within city boundaries anymore. Captain Lawson should have been immortalized in tall tales, as every hero deserves to be. He should never have been subjected to a world that had forgotten him.
Madame and the Captain spun around. A young woman with masses of red curls was thundering down the stairs at the end of the bar, half falling on the banister which she clutched in one pale, desperate hand. Her other hand clutched at the air, toward the handsome, spectral sailor who had turned his back toward her. Her violet shift was rent at the shoulder, her face contorted with grief.
“No, Lincoln, please—Please don’t go—”
“Lucy—” Madame rushed to the girl’s side.
“Oh, Madame, please,” the girl sobbed, pitching herself into the older woman’s arms. “Please tell him not to go.”
Madame made soothing noises and patted the girl’s back. What a trifling, fragile creature this live girl was, like a baby bird fallen from a nest.
“With all due respect, Madame,” said the man. “I did explain to her why I—why I have to.”
Lucy shuddered violently. “All he said, Madame, was some nonsense about the slow march of time, about the wind and sea eating him all up in its jaws like a great big sea monster. A—a Tempest Phooey, he called it! Well I never even heard of such a thing!”
Madame looked up at the man. Lincoln Macmaster, Captain Lawson’s faithful second in command. He had still not turned, was still facing the front window and the cliff beyond it. Another shadowy form leapt while they watched.
Captain Lawson turned back toward the painting.
“Maybe you should explain it to your captain.”
Lincoln Macmaster’s head dropped slightly. “Yes. I suppose I should. I owe it to him, don’t I?”
“I think you do.”
“That will be the end for him, too, won’t it?”
Madame gripped the trembling girl, probably too tightly. “Yes. I think it will be.”
Together they stared across the nearly empty bar, toward Captain Lawson hunched before the painting. There was a crack of thunder, and the lamps began to flicker and the windows rattled with wind. Captain Lawson cried out as before his eyes the green-painted sea began to roil. He leapt back in fright but then, slowly, crept closer. And then—the lightning, dazzling and dangerous, flickered across the surface of the painting, illuminating something that could not have been there before. It rose up through the cloud-daubed sky like a bloated corpse rising up from a place where it had been dined on by slow-moving and sightless creatures. It was a face. A pale, thin, almost womanish face…
Macmaster set his jaw. “It’s coming,” he said. “It’s coming whether Captain Lawson likes it or not, and it’s soon upon us.” He tilted his head in that way that all sailors do, listening.
© 2015 by Christine Borne
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