The Sailor by Jim Arkus
He set sail nearly two years ago and, depending on the day, had been either boldly exploring or lost at sea ever since.
His supplies, intended for no more than a month, had long since run out, leaving his survival entirely up to fate. By day, he fished, almost always catching enough for the day’s food, never more.
But at night, he fought monsters. Great writhing beasts with sharp teeth and sheering jaws and foaming mouths. Long choking tentacles. Black glassy eyes illuminated by moonlight and staring back at him with hunger and malice. Their sounds filled the air – creaking groans of titanic movement, low rumbles of bestial hunger, punctuated by deafening roars when they attacked.
The nights when monsters didn’t come were even worse. He was kept awake all night, always vigilant, too terrified to relax for even a moment. He would crouch in his boat with his eyes scanning the murky waters just outside. Ears listening intently for the slightest change in sound, for the gentle lapping of the sea water against the hull to shift its rhythm. A signal that something was coming. Again.
The morning he saw land, he didn’t believe it.
The sun had just come up over the horizon. He had become so accustomed to seeing nothing in the distance but the ocean stretching on, glassy and unforgiving. At first he doubted himself, but no, there was land.
Within hours he discovered that not only was there land, but there was a city. By the time he had reached the harbor, the sun had gone across to the other end of the sky. During that time, he had not seen a single other ship come or go from this place.
Though it had been years, he remembered how frantic seaport life was, and so he could not understand how this one was so quiet. Even so, he tied up his boat and stepped onto the dock.
Making his way through the city, he found no signs of present life. Instead, it appeared as if this had been a great city, until all at once the entire populace stopped what they were doing and walked away from it. Merchants’ shops stood with doors open, cafes with chairs out front on cobblestone patios were left unattended, glasses and plates with half eaten food still there.
Finding the situation more and more curious, he pressed on. After only a few blocks, he heard the beginnings of noise from within the heart of the city. Chanting, the sound of drums, offset by the occasional shriek of an animal or a human, he didn’t know which. As he made his way further, fear and experience venturing into the unknown caused him to press into the shadows, particularly as he noticed light from a series of torches began to illuminate the streets.
He crept closer, finally discovering where the city’s population had gone. They were all gathered around several large bonfires in the city’s main square. They chanted in unison, hundreds of them, as the fires raged. Even from this distance, hidden in the shadows, he could feel the heat emanating from the great flames.
The leaders of the chants stood on a hastily constructed stage in the center. They wore masks, unlike anything the sailor had ever seen. The masks resembled birds, but they were twisted and grotesque, like a mockery of what a bird should be. The crowd, so enraptured in their own chanting, and whipped into a frenzy by the dancing of the flames and the cries of the bird-priests, did not even notice the sailor standing dumbstruck behind them, no longer even keeping to the shadows. He did not know what he was witnessing. Whether it was a cult or brainwashing. Whether they had all volunteered, or if the priests held some hypnotic power over the crowd.
It was many long minutes before he regained what little of his composure that he could. Slowly, he crept back into the shadows and made his way back. Back through the abandoned city, past merchants’ shops standing with doors open and cafes with chairs out front on cobblestone patios left unattended, down along the dock and back to his boat. Quickly, he untied from the dock and pushed off.
No, he thought, he would take his chances with the monsters of the sea.
Jim Arkus is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist with a powerful voice and style which is somehow innovative and traditional at the same time. He has taken inspiration from the deep blues of such luminaries as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, as well as contemporary folk and rock acts, and forged a unique style on the guitar. His latest album, Been Downhill Since Then, was released last year