The snow boiled around them like thick soup in a cauldron. The black water leered, its rocky teeth just slightly snagging the hull of the ship, teasing.
Tommy struggled his way to the bow, as he had done every day since they had lost their way and lost their wind. They had been stuck in the snow for weeks. There was no breeze, no storm, only the constant falling of thick, heavy snow, raining down in chunks the size of shillings.
His world was only black and white now; an impenetrable wall of white snow, stark against the obsidian water. The snowfall was so thick, the prisoners onboard had forgotten what the sun looked like, her homely glow just a memory in their scurvy-ravaged minds. Tommy tried to keep them busy by asking them to sweep the thick blanket of snow off the deck every time it got deeper than knee-height, but they were starting to struggle. The men staggered back under the deck after their shift, bone-cold and sallow-eyed, trembling from head to toe. They were running out of food, and they were freezing from the inside out.
Tommy squinted out into the white void, trying desperately to catch the glimmer of a lighthouse. Maybe today, he wondered, would be the day they found salvation. Or, maybe today would be the day that he threw himself into the tar-black oblivion below. Perhaps it would be a faster death than the gnawing hole that was growing inside his stomach and mind.
As the captain of the ship, Tommy was tasked with keeping the prisoners under lock and key. They were bad men, he had been told, thieves and frauds and bigamists. He himself was an outcast too, exiled from the royal court. The King had heard the rumours about him, about how he would sneak into the Duke of Cornwall’s quarters after midnight. About how they were closer than friends should be. About how the Duke had planned to leave his wife and run away with him to somewhere they could be free.
On their long journey from London to the new prison colonies in Australia, Tommy had grown to know his prisoners very well. He respected them, and they respected him in return, which was a feeling he hadn’t felt since his expulsion from high society. The men shared stories about fathers and first loves, travels and favourite foods. He truly felt like he could trust his new companions, despite where they were being taken for their life sentence. Now that they had been stranded in this dead, white void, he desperately wanted to get them to safety. They deserved a kinder fate than whichever out of freezing or starving to death got them first.
His heart leaped into his throat when he saw it – a soft blue-green glow through the whiteout, due starboard. He let out a strangled yelp. He ran under the deck, rousing the men to join him. They were leaning over the side of the ship, gazing and babbling to one another in dazed awe and confusion, when they heard it. A woman’s voice, singing, clear as ice:
“I will end your suffering”
The men stood agog. Their eyes turned to Tommy, desperate as starving dogs. He stared back at them. He looked at their sunken eyes, their matted hair, the way their clothes hung off them like washing drying in the wind. They begged him, shouting over each other, clamouring for attention. Tommy sighed, gazing back out into the whiteout. There was no other hope. They couldn’t drift forever.
“Alright. Let’s go.”
Piling into the rowboat, they paddled towards the glowing song. The snow got thicker and thicker as they approached, coating the water in an ephemeral layer before dissolving into the dark. Creeping forwards, the men watched in anticipation as the light got brighter. In the epicentre of the glow, emerging out of the whirling snow as they approached, was a horrifying beauty, towering 20 foot tall. A woman. A behemoth. Some unholy chimera of human, fish, crustacean, her skin glowed a ghostly aquamarine. She reclined across a reef of sharp rocks that jutted out the water, glowing gunmetal as it reflected her shining scales. The reef curved around in a crescent, spreading out from where she lay waiting, like open arms. She smiled as she sang, harmonising between three different voice-boxes, pincer-sharp teeth spilling over the edge of her lipless mouth. Her song wheedled its way into their brains:
“Come join me and I will set you free!”
The prisoners were hypnotised. They haphazardly rushed the boat over to the wings of the black reef, the men spilling over onto slippery rocks tipped with white, slimy with seaweed and sleet. They clung to each other for balance, trying not to tumble into the salt-spitting ocean broiling just below their feet.
“Save us!” called out Edgar, reaching his hands out towards her.
“Set me free, goddess!” Steven shouted, even louder.
Tommy, holding the other men back, stepped forwards first, stumbling along the snow-coated reef towards the creature. They cried out in protest, jealous. She locked her amber eyes on him, her white vertical pupils narrowing as he approached.
“How will you help us?” he asked, staring defiantly back. “Will you really save my men, beast?”
“How dare you,” she hissed. “How dare you offend me, your guardian angel? You and your ruffian crew will freeze to death in mere days without my help. I am your only hope, ungrateful land-dweller!”
She twisted her gargantuan tail back, sending it soaring towards a rock tower and crushing it instantly.
“Apologies, great beauty. All that I ask is that you save me first, before any of my men.”
His crew shouted in the distance, proclaiming him selfish, greedy, a traitor.
She smiled, baring her pincushion collection of fangs. “Just what I would have expected from you, Captain. A weasel, a coward, and a criminal to the very core.”
“A captain that abandons his ship is no captain at all,” Benjamin shrieked, filled with rage and envy, eyes glowing green in the ghostly light of the creature.
Tommy looked back at them, smiling sadly through the snow. The flakes settled softly on his lashes, and he remembered the first time they had seen snow, many months ago in the Southern Ocean. They were so excited, running around, throwing snowballs and shrieking like children. It was the first time he had felt truly happy since he had last seen the Duke. Who would have thought that it could have been the end of them all.
“You’ll thank me soon enough.”
He turned back to the creature, closing his eyes and opening his arms.
“Emancipate me, then!” he cried.
“It would be my pleasure, Captain.”
She let out one final harmony, a laugh of mirth, and seized him in her maw. The other men, still enchanted by her song, stared open-mouthed up at her, skin turning purple from the snow still coating their bodies. Tommy, however, having gone deaf some 5 years past after a horrible illness, had been free of her spell all along. He had learned to read the other men’s lips, but luckily couldn’t hear a word of the creature’s parasitic hymn.
He gave his last desperate act to his friends as he swung his sword out from his belt and plunged it through the top of her mouth. Knowing that the creature was hunting them, her glow an anglerfish lure in a gloom of her own creation, he knew what he had to do to stop her devouring the rest of his poor, witless men, who couldn’t put up a fight themselves. Bright silver blood leaked from the wound where the sword stuck out like a horn in the centre of her crown. The creature shrieked and thrashed, whipping her enormous body back and forth, destroying the towers of rock surrounding the reef, sending huge boulders flying into the sea. She let out one last foul shriek, a great piercing scream that snapped the other men out of their stupor, before collapsing into the icy water like a landslide. The snow stopped in an instant, melting away the whiteout and leaving the crew blinking against the cold blue sky and the unfamiliar glare of the sun. They looked around themselves, bemused and terrified, stranded on tiny rock in the middle of the great blue ocean.
Benjamin came to his senses first, calling out for Tommy, eyes scouring the ocean for any sign of life. Tommy, who had seen through the sorceress’s song and sacrificed himself to the creature, a siren, their angel of death. Tommy, who had been impaled with the creature’s foul fangs. Tommy, who had fallen into the abyss, to which the creature finally returned. Tommy, who sank down through the blue, who’s last thought was of the shimmering sun on the water above him, and of the Duke, who was waiting for him.
Based in London, Jess Thomson is a big fan of carb-based foods, cosy jumpers and small dogs. She has words in Era Magazine, The Demented Goddess, Potluck Zine and various other zines. You can find her on twitter at @thomsonjessic, and on Instagram at @jessicthomson.