Whale of a tale - Editor
Survivor: South Pacific
by Tyler M. Mathis
The ship began to rise, ever so gently, listing slightly to starboard. Jonathan Meade shook off his distant dreams of home and gripped the wheel tighter to keep the Annabelle Starbuck from drifting off course. The ship continued to rise and list. Odd indeed, such a rolling swell on the calm equatorial seas.
The lookout, high in the topgallant crosstrees, shouted something unintelligible. “Speak sensibly, man!” Meade said. The shouting continued, with several foremast hands joining in to form a chaotic chorus. Meade followed their pointing fingers to port.
He had never seen anything like it in his twelve years at sea - a towering wave as high as the crosstrees. The Annabelle Starbuck rose with the sea, listing sharply to starboard as she tried to crest the nearly vertical wave. A million gallons of roaring water drowned out the terrified cries of the crew, Meade included, as the wave crashed over the Annabelle Starbuck. Meade’s last thought was a prayer for his wife and daughter back home in New Bedford.
How will they survive without me?
The question echoed in Meade’s head as he was knocked about in a maelstrom of crushing saltwater. He tried to swim, to survive, though he knew it was pointless to fight the fury of the sea.
Saltwater gushed from Meade’s lungs in painful, retching spasms. Searing sunlight once again burned his face. The Pacific had reassumed her peaceful facade. Alive? The very thought was inconceivable. Meade found just enough energy to tread water, though he wondered why he was even bothering. All that remained of the Annabelle Starbuck, whaler of New Bedford, was a scattering of flotsam and a few corpses bobbing on the placid surface of the ocean.
A beefy hand grabbed his shoulder, spun him around. “Mr. Meade!” someone said. “He lives!”
All this had occurred a month before. Now Jonathan Meade, former Second Mate of the Annabelle Starbuck, wondered if he and the others had survived or gone to hell as he watched Malachi Ogle attempt to feed the entrails of a tiny fish to a foremast hand named Stallings.
The four men had suffered from starvation and exposure for two weeks on the open sea, and the island they landed upon provided only scant food and comfort. It was a miserable place, a desolate, scrub-covered rock in the middle of the Pacific, home to a few elusive birds and some stunted sea life in its rocky shallows, animals that were difficult to catch and scarcer by the day. Ogle, the strongest of the men, had explored all of the small island and proclaimed it uninhabited; no wonder, considering it lacked a source of fresh water. If not for the wooden tub salvaged from the flotsam of the Annabelle Starbuck—and God’s grace in filling it during a storm the previous week—the four men would likely have died of thirst.
Stallings slurped at the fish entrails, sucking them down. He then regurgitated them in a spasm of coughing.
“Blast you, boy,” Ogle said, “not so fast.”
Stallings panted, vomited some more. He won’t last much longer, Meade thought. Stallings had been a skinny, bucktoothed boy when the Annabelle Starbuck rode the waves; he was now but a Halloween skeleton.
“Well, if you don’t want them…” said Peasbury, the fourth survivor, as he scooped up the vomited entrails, now crusted with sand, and popped them into his mouth. Meade found the action prudent rather than disgusting. Food was food, and they needed to make the most of what little they had.
Every whaleman knew the story of the Essex, the whaling ship rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale some fifteen years before. In the aftermath of that disaster, crewmen had resorted to cannibalism to survive as they drifted on the open ocean. Meade didn’t consider his situation quite so dire. He figured they could survive on the island’s fauna until they were rescued, and as the senior man among the survivors he had informed his men that cannibalism was not an option so long as potential food sources remained.
Stallings collapsed on his side in the sand. Ogle shook his head and let out a breath. “I can’t do anything for him, sir,” Ogle said to Meade. “He keeps choking on everything I put in him.”
“Then I should get the rest of the fish!” Peasbury said.
“Should you indeed?” Ogle asked. “Officers eat before the men, I seem to recall. This fish belongs to Mr. Meade.”
“No,” Meade said. “Give it to him, Ogle. He needs it more than either of us.”
Ogle nodded, tossed the fish to Peasbury, who caught it and proceeded to devour it, scales and all.
Shaking his head, Ogle stood to his full height of nearly six feet. “Perhaps there’s more where that one came from.” He grabbed his harpoon, preparing to leave the grove of gnarled scrub trees the survivors called home. Beneath Ogle’s bush of a beard hung the spearpoint, a symbol of his roots upon the earth—he’d found it while plowing the earth on a hardscrabble Vermont farm—as well as the seaborne profession he’d taken to so adeptly. He was the most accurate harpooner Meade had ever seen.
“If there are, you’ll get them,” Meade said.
“A dip of water, please, sir!” Peasbury said, gasping.
“Shut your mouth,” said Ogle.
“Yes, do,” Meade said to Peasbury. “You’ve had your morning ration.”
“But, sir, I got sand in my throat!”
Meade clenched his fists. “One handful! That is all!”
Peasbury scuttled to the water tub and scooped two handfuls.
“Little wretch,” Ogle said. He snatched Peasbury by the hair and tossed him several feet. He then turned and stalked from the shade beneath the stunted trees.
Meade awakened in the first rays of sunlight to the perpetual sounds of the island—the crash of surf on the nearby beach, and the constant buzzing of flies. He stood and stretched, his stiff joints protesting. Wobbling on his feet, he gripped a tree branch as he fought off a dizzy spell brought on by starvation. Like any ship’s officer coming on watch, he took stock of the current situation.
Stallings was missing, and a trail in the sand indicated that he hadn’t left on his own. Someone had dragged him away.
Peasbury was supposed to be on watch. Meade kicked him awake, receiving a surprised curse for his efforts.
Ogle awakened at the ruckus. “Where in blazes is my harpoon?”
Meade hadn’t noticed that their only weapon had been taken along with Stallings. He also wasn’t surprised that Ogle would miss his harpoon more than Stallings, enough not to notice his absence at all. Meade pointed out the obvious facts to both of the groggy men.
“He was there at the end of my watch, sir,” Ogle said. “This slacker let his guard down.”
“Perhaps I would have been more vigilant on watch if you hadn’t told us we were alone on this island,” Peasbury said.
“Are you calling me a liar, you fo’c’sle rat?” Ogle asked, gaining his feet.
“Well, we’re obviously not alone,” Peasbury said as Ogle advanced on him.
“As you were, Ogle,” Meade said, his order stopping the harpooner. “I won’t tolerate fighting. We are all to blame, and we’re going to calmly decipher what happened here and decide on a course of action. Obviously there is someone here among us—”
“There was no one here as of yesterday, sir,” Ogle said.
“Then how do you explain that?” Peasbury asked, pointing to the drag trail in the sand.
“Boats. Cannibals in canoes. They must have rowed here from some other island. They’re probably gone already.”
Meade pondered Ogle’s theory. “I don’t know our exact location, but we are relatively far from known cannibal islands, Mr. Ogle.”
“These island savages are all cannibals,” Ogle said.
“Perhaps so. But if cannibals did steal Mr. Stallings, why didn’t they just kill all of us?”
Peasbury answered, “Perhaps they didn’t want to risk waking us and starting a fight.”
“Or maybe they’re keeping us fresh for a future stew,” Ogle said. The three men were silent for a moment, each no doubt pondering himself cubed into little chunks of meat simmering away in a giant cauldron as naked savaged cavorted in hungry anticipation.
“Could be a castaway, sir,” Peasbury said. “A misfit lad marooned here by some heartless bastard of a captain.”
“I’m familiar with the procedure, Peasbury,” Meade said. He had served under one such heartless bastard on his first whaling cruise, a sadist who flogged a young man almost to death before stranding him on a barren coral atoll for Mother Nature to finish.
“There is no way,” Ogle said. “I would have found him.”
Peasbury snorted. Ogle balled his ham-like fists and scowled.
Meade shook his head. “I think not, Peasbury. I have complete faith in Mr. Ogle’s observations. If someone else were marooned here he would at least have found signs of him.”
Ogle nodded, the castaway question settled to his satisfaction.
Meade said, “Which leaves us where we started, with mere theories. We must now investigate, starting with where Stallings might have been dragged to.”
The other two men nodded agreement, and the three followed the drag trail, which ended a few feet from their copse of shade scrub when the terrain turned from sand to rock.
“No telling where they dragged him from here,” Ogle said.
“Where do you get they?” Peasbury said. “If there were more than one, wouldn’t they have carried Stallings instead of dragging him?”
“Maybe they dragged him to obscure their tracks, Peasbury,” Ogle said. “There could be one or more; we don’t know because Stallings wiped out their footprints.”
“Every question begets another question,” Meade said. “A full search of the island is called for. Peasbury and I will scour the shores for further clues. As the strongest of us, Mr. Ogle, I rely on you to search the heights.”
“Yes, sir,” Ogle said. “But we must not go unarmed.”
Meade concurred, and the three turned to gathering loose rocks for use as missiles, which they carried by using their ragged shirts as sacks. Each man broke off the stoutest branch he could find for a club. Properly armed, they set out to search the island. They were back under the scrub by afternoon after looking high and low, their search a futile effort revealing no clues. Stallings had vanished.
Cannibal or castaway, Stallings’ kidnapper(s) did not return in the following weeks. Ogle searched the entire island several more times, finding no trace of any other inhabitants. Meade found the canoe-borne cannibal theory the most logical explanation, and the three men kept a sharp watch day and night.
Supplies of food and water were dwindling rapidly. Only the barest of sprinkles replenished the rainwater in the tub, strictly rationed to a cupped handful per day for each man. Ogle did all of the hunting, but was unable to spear fish without his beloved harpoon, and reduced to throwing rocks at birds who wisely scattered when he approached. Attempts to make a spear using Ogle’s spear point were fruitless; the dwarf tree limbs were too gnarled to fashion a shaft. Meade tried to augment their food supply by weaving a crude fishing net from the several hundred feet of rope they had found floating in the flotsam. Unfortunately, most of the tiny fish managed to slip through its coarse meshes.
Peasbury contracted dysentery, and weakened dramatically over a couple of days. He begged incessantly for fresh water to replace the fluids he was losing through his bowels. Meade was sympathetic, but pragmatically so. He steeled himself against Peasbury’s cries, only once allowing him an extra handful of water.
It was déjà vu. Meade awakened one morning to find Peasbury missing, a trail leading from beneath the trees indicating that he’d been dragged away. Ogle had fallen asleep on watch. Enraged, Meade rose on aching limbs and gathered his energy to kick Ogle awake, yet stayed his foot at the last moment when he saw blood congealed in the tangle of Ogle’s hair. Meade felt his scalp, and found a bleeding knot the size of a goose egg. Ogle awakened with a start, groaning in pain from the blow he’d taken.
“They’ve struck again,” Meade said, pointing to where Peasbury had lain.
Ogle gritted his teeth and growled, bounced to his feet. “Filthy bastards!” He grabbed his club and a shirt full of rocks.
“You can’t go out there,” Meade said. “We must stick together!”
“At night, yes. But in the day by damn I’ll search until I have our revenge!”
Ogle kept his word, leaving every morning to search the island and returning at dusk. He found nothing, yet still he searched, a man fueled by anger and a lust to kill his aggressors. Meade stood in awe of his stamina and strength. Though as starved for food as Meade, the vigorous Ogle never tired, his constitution keeping him somewhat healthy through exertions that would have killed other men. He brought food back to camp on rare occasions, but not often enough to keep Meade from slipping further into the death grip of starvation.
Meade felt his life force fading away as he shriveled into a husk of the man he had been. Flies buzzed around him constantly; he felt them in his ears, digging about in the wax as they laid their eggs. He spent his lonely days staring off at the sea he had once sailed with such confidence, a hunter who had sunk lances into the largest and most dangerous quarry in the ocean. Now he was a captive of the sea, perhaps damned by God to die a horrible death in return for the havoc he’d wreaked upon His mightiest creatures. He laughed as loudly as he could, and wondered if all dying men pondered such ludicrous thoughts during the final moments of their lives. Such cogitations were pointless….
Especially when there were sails on the horizon.
Certain he was hallucinating, Meade jumped to his feet for a better look. A square-rigger she was, a military ship or a whaler, probably seeking a source of fresh water on the island. Her captain would be disappointed, but Meade could live with that. His prayers had been answered.
Rejuvenated with hope, Meade shuffled off into the heights to find Ogle, shouting the man’s name in his excitement. But the exertions of the climb soon stole the breath from him. He gasped for air and pressed on, hoping to locate Ogle from the island’s zenith.
Meade hadn’t been this high on the island for weeks. He picked his way through sharp brown rocks, the ancient remnants of the island’s volcanic past, and came upon a shallow defile near the summit.
He noticed the corpses first. Peasbury, his carcass crawling with maggots, empty eye sockets staring toward heaven in unanswered supplication. A skeleton that must have been Stallings lay sprawled upon the rocks.
And Ogle, a fresh kill being slaughtered on a slab of lava rock. Meade didn’t know what to think of his butcher, a man wearing only a loincloth, tanned like a native yet overburdened with an untended bush of sun-bleached blond hair and beard.
“ ’ello, Mr. Meade,” the man said in an Australian accent. “Nice to finally make your acquaintance.”
Meade said nothing. He stared at Ogle, who had lost the spearpoint around his neck. His butcher was using it to separate the muscle from Ogle’s stout frame.
“Oh, so sorry. Name’s Cyrus Horsham, formerly of the whale ship Cygnus outta Sydney. I was a harpooner like Mr. Ogle.” Horsham nodded toward Ogle’s harpoon, the pivoting steel point stained with its owner’s blood.
“He lied,” Meade said. “You were here the entire time.”
“Almost fourteen months, truth be known. Me captain marooned me here, some trumped-up theory that I was plottin’ a mutiny. Can you imagine such a thing? Anyway, Mr. Ogle found me straight away—an intrepid sort he was, no hiding from him—and we struck a deal: he got half of Stallings, as well as the next dying man, in return for keeping me a secret. They were good as dead anyway. It worked out well for a while.”
“I’m surprised you betrayed him so soon. Still quite a bit of meat left on Peasbury.”
“He was getting a bit stale, though.” Horsham shrugged. Meade noticed he had a pot belly.
“Well, I won’t be next on your bill of fare, Horsham. There’s a ship approaching. We’ll be rescued by nightfall.”
“A ship! Well, by ginger, it’s about time someone charted this godforsaken wart on the sea. But I’m afraid you won’t be going with me, Mr. Meade. I didn’t starve here for fourteen months to meet my maker at the end of a rope.” Horsham snatched up Ogle’s harpoon.
“I won’t tell a soul, Horsham! You have my word.”
“Don’t need it, Mr. Meade. You know, I once sunk an iron in a sperm whale’s eye from thirty yards away. I wonder if I’ve still got me arm….”