60 S, 150 W

by Nick Young

“I tell ye, mates, somethin’ ain’t square with this ‘ere ship. It ain’t been so since we pulled up anchor in New Zeelie.” The man who spoke thus, his bearded face burnt nut-brown, his voice like weathered sail cloth, was known to all aboard the Ashokan as Tommy Flint, a salt who had been forty years before the mast.  Tapping the dead ashes from the bowl of his clay pipe and refilling it with fresh latakia, he squinted in the direction of his companions in the forecastle as the whaler pitched and yawed through the latest tempest to have thundered down on the ship. “Ye know I speak the truth to ye.”

“Aye, and I own to havin’ a queer feeling or two meself, Tom,” one of the others said.

The disquietude among the men had been festering like an infected sore each day since the Ashokan had crossed into the calamitous waters of the Southern Ocean.

“’e’s bound to ‘ave us drowned like rats,’e is,” groused another man astraddle his sea chest.

“No more’n the next captain,” refuted Tom.

“No? How do ye come to figger it thus?” Tommy Flint scratched a match across a rough beam and put fire to the dark tobacco, coaxing his pipe back to life.

“How? I’ll tell ye. Plain as the Pole Star it is.” The men braced themselves as the ship was battered by a cascading wave and rolled to larboard. Tommy resumed his pipe, puffing meditatively for a moment. “Now, I’ve shipped with this captain afore, and I can tell ye Obadiah Folger will sail to the ends o’ the earth if there swims whales a-brim with parmaceti enough to light the lamps on Nantucket. Aye. He that hired him, as tight-fisted a Quaker as ever drew breath, expects no less. And Obadiah Folger, him bein’ a master loyal to a fault, means to see to his end o’ the bargain. So mark, shipmates, we’ll prowl these waters ‘til the hold is full to the last thimbleful and weather be damned.” A third crewmember spoke up.

“If it ain’t the cap’n that ain’t square, then what, Tommy?”  The old sailor removed the pipe from his mouth and stared at it, ruminating for a long moment.

“Heave in close,” he said at last. The men leaned forward, attentive. Tom looked each in the eye before speaking. “It’s the new man, I’ll lay,” he said gravely.

“The FeeGee harpooneer?”

“Ye can claim my share o’ this viyage if ‘e hasn’t conjured a heathen spell on this ‘ere ship.”

***

Near to 550 days out of Nantucket, the Ashokan was buffeted by a hellish cyclone west of the Cook Islands that caused severe damage to her fore and main masts.  When the storm abated, Captain Folger set a course for the New Zealand whaling outpost at Preservation Station or, as the natives name it, Rakituma.  

Now, as ill luck would have it, the captain’s most trusted harponeer, a Gay Header named Tuspaquin, fell ill with a mysterious fever and died during the five days the Ashokan was laid up for repairs. This was a true dilemma for Captain Folger who was loathe to resume whale hunting with but two men skilled with the irons.  

Whether the captain, regarded as a devout master who studied Scripture assiduously, called upon Heaven to find a replacement for Tuspaquin wasn’t known. But on the fifth day there appeared on the wharf an imposing Fijian who announced,

“You need-ee harpooneer. Me bery good harpooneer. You hire-ee Nadrukuta.”   

Captain Folger quickly took the measure of the man before him. Standing well above six feet, Nadrukuta was a prime specimen of a Fiji Islander—sleekly muscled, his coppery skin, from face to waist, covered in indigo ink tattoos of the most intricate runic patterns. His deep eyes flashed black beneath scalp barren of hair save a topknot gathered with a scarlet bow. Around his neck hung an amulet of rough-carved stone, with a fearsome idol’s countenance. Over one shoulder was slung a weathered canvas seabag; over the other, a leather thong held a long and deadly harpoon. 

“And how did thee come to know of mine need?” Obadiah Folger inquired.

“You hire-ee Nadrukuta,” was the native’s only reply.

And so he was, for the captain viewed his appearance as a singular act of Providence, one he was in no position to reject.

The next morning, the Ashokan weighed anchor and put out to sea.   

Right from the start, the new man held himself apart, making no attempt to mix with his shipmates, and they were keen to take notice. He chose to sit alone, often taking up his native tomahawk, intricately carved, fashioned with not only a fine-whetted blade but a small pipe that he would fill carefully with strong tobacco and smoke.  Sometimes, especially during the middle watch, his meditative puffs would be interspersed with low, guttural incantations in his own tongue which none could decipher.

If Captain Folger marked his good fortune with the appearance of Nadrukuta, it was short-lived, for the mood aboard his ship was never the same since that day. The weather turned especially foul, unrelentingly miserable. In one of the gales, a young sailor from New Bedford, a favorite among the crew, was swept from the rigging and lost. Gloom settled like a shroud, deepened by the sighting of not a solitary whale in the two weeks since the Ashokan had sailed.

So it was when Captain Folger ventured to take the ship into more perilous waters in search of the elusive leviathan that Tommy Flint gathered his shipmates close.

“Mark me well when I say to ye that the heathen carries a devil inside him,” Tommy pronounced, attending to his pipe again as the ship rolled heavily to starboard. At that moment, the hatch just aft the forecastle burst open and Crook, the second mate, sang out for all hands on deck.

Captain Folger, one hand firmly grasping the shrouds against the wind and violent seas, had just given the helmsman the command to wear ship, when Tommy Flint and the rest scrambled up from below.

“Ye men,” the captain cried over the shriek of the tempest, “aloft with ye. Look to the canvas and be sharp about it, d’ye hark?”As swiftly as they were able on the pitching, slippery decks, the sailors ascended the ratlines to furl sails lest they be shredded.  The men went about their work with diligence and urgency as the Ashokan plowed on. All the elements conspired against the crew—howling wind, monstrous waves and the bitter cold. For many minutes the life-and-death struggle played out, building in ferocity to a point where the fate of the ship and its complement of souls appeared to teeter on the brink.

Then arrived a moment of transcendant eeriness.

From below decks, Nadrukuta appeared and strode, impervious to the raging elements and tumultuous motion of the vessel and planted himself firmly in the center of the quarter-deck.  Facing toward the bow, his fierce countenance—eyes burning black as the night that pressed in—glared upon the crew. In his right hand he gripped his stout iron and, upon raising it toward the heavens, bellowed a string of words in his heathenish dialect that none could discern.  Whatever their content, the effect was singular, for in an instant the wind commenced to abate; the wild seas tamed and the Ashokan at length ceased its perilous fight for survival. As this unfolded, the men on deck stood in awe of the Fijian. Those sailors aloft, as if in a trance, began descending from their perches. Even the helmsman drew nigh. Captain Folger reacted with alarm and anger, raising his voice in order to reassert his authority.

“Avast! I say avast, ye!”

But no order that issued forth altered what was transpiring.  The weather continued its moderation as Nadrukuta kept his harpoon raised on high. And though none could translate his tongue, it seemed as if his loud incantations alone were mastering sea and air.

Several more minutes elapsed until the ship rode much more easily on the ocean swells. Overhead, a fissure widened in the forbidding inky canopy of clouds, and while all aboard stood transfixed, as still as stone statues, there descended tendrils of the purest bluish light, snaking through the firmament, twining until they became as one and drew to the tip of the ship’s mainmast. And from this apex, the eerie illumination swiftly shimmered deckward, fanning, until it had suffused the whole of the Ashokan’s rigging.

“St. Elmo’s fire, it is!” cried Trumble, the first mate, as the crew shrank back.

No sooner was every spar and sheet alight than the mystical emanation shot like a bolt to Nadrukuta’s upraised iron, causing it to pulsate as if it were a brandished torch. The heathen took this as a sign to redouble his impassioned speech. As he did, his eyes seemed to smolder with an inner fire as incandescent as that which enveloped the ship. The crew continued to gape in awe while Captain Folger was struck mute. Then, with a dramatic flourish, Nadrukuta lowered his harpoon and swung it ‘round until its glowing tip was leveled directly at the master.

“You kill-ee Nadrukuta people!” he shouted, then swept his iron over the sailors, crying, “Rape-ee women! You pay-ee Lord Rokola!” Then, with his left hand, the harpooneer plunged into the canvas bag slung across his chest and in the pulsing glow which changed from icy blue to a deep scarlet, withdrew as hideous a sight as any among the men aboard had ever beheld.   For there, in his tight fist, dangling from thick, twined strands of hair, hung the grotesque shrunken heads of a dozen men, faces twisted,  withered and blackened, eyelids roughly sewn closed, as were the grimaced lips of each.  Nadrukuta, lapsing once more into his own tongue, resumed his imprecations, voice rising anew as the wind began to stir afresh and the sea churn.  And as he raved, he thrust out his hellish bundle until the blood-red witchfire surrounded it and seemed to set it ablaze. 

Rokola koya na nona cudru!”

Above, the banks of clouds closed one upon another again and the deepest night descended once more.

***

 Three days later the whaler Wauwinet, three hundred eighty-eight days out of Nantucket, was on a course south by southeast at 600S, 1500W when Captain Josiah Creen was summoned from his cabin at two bells of the morning watch. 

After an uneventful night, when the ocean had fallen into an uncharacteristic calm, through the thick fog that hung like a pall over the watery world as the new day dawned, the foretop lookout had descried the spires of another ship. 

Upon his arrival on deck, Captain Creen called for his glass and turned its focus off the larboard bow where the other ship was beginning to come into clearer view.

 “My trumpet, if you please, Mr. Bellows,” Creen ordered.  Once the first mate had complied, the captain raised the instrument to his mouth and hailed the other vessel repeatedly without receiving a reply. “Most curious, indeed,” he muttered, then issued a command to “lower away the jolly boat.”

Accompanied by Mr. Bellows and two members of the crew, Captain Creen traveled the cable’s distance and, failing to raise a response yet again, boarded the ship.

What he recounts next he was at pains to disclose in the pages of his log.

“Upon alighting on her deck and seeing not a soul about, I called out loudly again—once, twice, thrice—still without a reply.  Mr. Bellows remarked to me that he had a decidely unsettled feeling, an expression which I could not myself gainsay. I instructed the two crewmen,  Silas Biggins and Jonathan Groome, to go below and investigate in the belief that—unlikely as it may have been—perhaps all aboard had been stricken with a malady and rendered unable to manage the ship.

The two men were gone but a short time, long enough to open the fore hatch, descend and return to report that while they had found the effects of the crew in the forecastle, not a single person did they encounter.

“There seemed nothing remaining to do but to go aft.  This we did, reaching the poop deck as thick waves of fog rolled about us, obscuring virtually everything not within a few feet. 

We were there but a short time before we encountered a scene of the most horrifying sort, one that is entirely without precedent in my thirty-one years in the fishery and, God help me, one I never hope to witness again while I draw breath, for we discovered the answer to what had become of the ship’s company,  revealing itself in the most grotesque manner.   

“The fog which had theretofore enwrapped the ship almost to the point of invisibility commenced to dissipate, allowing the rigging to slowly emerge. When he turned his gaze skyward, Mr. Bellows was the first to descry that from the mizzen yard there hung, from port to starboard—as the Almighty and those who accompanied me are my witnesses—the shrunken heads of twenty-five men. 

“As the fog continued to clear, I discerned that the heads, dangling as they were from braided strands of their own hair were akin to those possessed by the cannibals of the South Sea islands—the skin dessicated and blackened, with distorted features that bore the agony of their final moments.  And each had the lids of their eyes and their lips crudely stitched together with a rough thread.

“Upon examining the documents in the captain’s quarters, we determined the cursed ship was the Ashokan and learned the names of her doomed crew. As to how they met their horrible fate,  that we were never able to ascertain.

“Having ordered the ghastly heads brought down, I did what I felt my Christian duty to be—consigning the remains to the solace of the deep with what comforting words I could summon from the Book along with the fervent prayer that Heaven above would never allow such a horror to befall any other seafarers ever again.”

***

On the quay at the port of Avarua on the Cook Island of Raratonga, an imposing figure stepped aboard the deck of the whale ship Constellation, which was being refitted after losing her foremast in a gale that also swept away two of the crew.  The figure stood before the captain and declared:

“You need-ee harponeer.  Me bery good harpooneer. You hire-ee Nadrukuta.”




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2 Responses to “60 S, 150 W”

  1. Alexandra Burris Says:

    This is beautifully written!

  2. Nick Young Says:

    Thank you, Alexandra.

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