This story is by Kevin Urban and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The pitch and roll of the ship was magnified at the topgallant of the mizzenmast where Allen Markum stood during the dogwatch or evening post. Aboard a schooner, the Ameritas, he proudly road the seas stargazed and stared beyond the foremast where the ship’s figurehead, a horrific sea monster named Mascotte, was sculpted into the prow. Against the coarse surface of the mast, Allen carved the final touches of an image of Mascotte.
He called out to the foremast watchman, “Hey, Milton! Beware if ye piss on Mascotte. She’ll bite ya clean down to the gristle.”
“Pipe it, dog!” Milton called back.
Allen blew the wood bits from the carving and sighed in accomplishment, a stark contrast from the flogging and harsh work aboard deck. He dreamt of exotic ports and recited seafaring stories of hardy ho, of lost at sea and of wayward woe. The greatest woe of all was a contagion known as “Consumptive Morbus,” or to many sailors as “Barnacle Madness.” Always spoken of with great revulsion and horror, any sign of the disease was met with intense fright that could easily spread panic throughout a ship.
During a particularly rough sway, Allen hugged the splintered mast with his face pressed against the carved image. The five-bells watch was rung, and Allen was climbing down when the ocean gave a sudden heave. He slipped at the cross-tree above the main yard and lacerated his leg below the knee on an iron fid that spiked out from the mast, he struggled to descend amid the pain and then gave way to the ache from his laceration when he reached the quarterdeck.
Ben, Allen’s most cherished mate aboard the ship was preparing to climb, noticed Allen’s injury and paused, “Here my friend, this will help ease your discomfort.” Ben retrieved a coconut from his satchel, removed a cork, and drenched the gash with the liquid inside.
The contents of the coconut was in question but Allen trusted his friend’s judgment. For, it was common to acquire a coconut and continue its use after the original contents was drunk, which infused a hint of the exotic flavor.
Allen winced as he dressed his wound and then laid his aching body in the woven cradle of his hammock. He quickly fell asleep as he rocked to and fro in a lullaby measured by the hum of the ocean and the moaning squelch of the hull. A few hours into his sleep, he was awakened by a vivid spike of pain that ran the length of his leg.
Through a porthole, a band of moonlight cascaded upon his lower half. In the gleam, Allen pulled back the bandage to expose a grotesque encrusted ulcer spreading beyond the lesion.
Deep breaths and nervous twitches overcame him as he wiped the sweat from his eyes, and sensed small barnacles that had erupted at his extremities, his joints and encircled every orifice of his body. The barnacles resembled hard conical spirals of tightly nestled fingernails that came to a point. He held back a childish whimper as he realized in horror that he had the Barnacle Madness. An urge to run swept over him as his shakes accompanied his state of panic, and he was seized with fear of not just the affliction but the cruel outcome of its revealing.
In the wee hours of the morning, Allen strained not to awaken the others who still slumbered in hammocks. Tied in a maze throughout the berth deck, Allen crept in between and under the suspended cradles that swayed against the yaw, heave, and surge of the ship in an unpredictable manner.
He avoided detection until he reached the center of the upper deck, near the mainmast. In the moonlight, Ben came face to face with the boatswain. The man’s eyes lit up with the realization of Allen’s condition. Fearfully, Allen grabbed him by the throat to prevent a scream. Easily, his jagged fingertips sliced through his tissue. He held him to the deck, choking him to death.
Allen hid in a small enclosure at the bow, convinced that his condition necessitated the act. When cries alerted the captain that the Boatswain had been murdered, he feared the worst. He stayed hidden during intermittent calls of his name at daybreak and whispered stories of him falling overboard. His paranoia swirled, fearing a search that would expose his morbid secret. The box became his bed and smelled of rotted hemp. Allen crept out only to steal sips of water from a cask during the dogwatch. In his box, he wavered between paranoid fear and hysterical chuckles as he lost his mind and developed an intense hunger for flesh.
The following day, Allen awoke to a ruckus.
“Keep him back boys he has the Morbus,” the first mate ordered.
“Kill the scurvy maggot,” one yelled.
“Mongrel whoreson,” another called.
“He murdered the Boatswain,” someone cried.
The words were venomous and wavered with fear. Allen peeked out to witness Ben’s croustade figure with barnacled hands and face driven across the upper deck. The mob corralled Ben with barge poles and heavy wood pegs waved like batons. He was pushed back and forced to stand upon the railing of the main deck, while holding tightly to a rope extended from the foresail.
The barnacles caused Ben’s eyes to bulge out, and his encrusted hands curved inward like a dog’s paws. Balanced between drowning or beating, he clenched his torn clothing and squeamishly cried.
A peg was launched from the crowd that tumbled through the air and landed a pulverizing blow to Ben’s skull. Knocked dizzy, as if in a trance, Ben’s rigid motionless body tipped backwards like a timber and disappeared beyond the gangway. A faint splash announced the end of the ruckus.
Allen stayed curled up in his box morphing into something hideous and beyond imagination as he rummaged his hands across his body analyzing his encrusted tumorous form. He realized that anything still human in him had nearly perished. The affliction intensified as his body changed through some ghastly pupa stage in a wooden cocoon.
That night, Allen emerged once again for a drink. His barnacle riddled body was unrecognizable and his feverish hunger was voracious. At the bow, Milton climbed down from the foremast and stood in shock at the sight of a monster. Again, Allen seized his victim at the throat, but this time, he ate into his neck, down to the bone, and then threw Milton’s corpse overboard before he crawled back to his box.
That morning, just before the seven-bells watch was rung, Allen awoke to distinctive shouts, squeaking pulleys and the flapping release of sails. A panic that he himself was greatly familiar with – attack by a rival vessel. Allen rehearsed the call to “man battle stations” in the exact moment that it was being ordered. He was revitalized with a sense of duty as cannon blasts from the opposing ship grew nearer.
The absence of the boatswain proved critical, for the upper deck was not stocked and organized. The crewmen clamored over one another in a meager counter attack. All seemed lost and Allen waited for the end, helplessly tasting death.
Cannon blasts crippled the mainmast and the figurehead was blown off, along with the shell of Allen’s hiding place. Wood shards and burning embers rained from the sky. Thick waves of smoke, and desperate yells filled the air. Suddenly, Allen’s, monstrous figure arose from the cloud of smoke at the bow, and screamed out in wretched horror, his pent-up insanity burst forth.
All action ceased as the shocked faces of the men watched the monster rise and acknowledge their struggle. A dismayed crew, awed by what appeared to be the sea monster of the Ameritas come-to-life.
Someone called out, “Mascotte!”
In unison, prayers, cries, and cheers filled the ranks.
The cannon fire mellowed as the attacking ship prepared to glide parallel to the Ameritas for its crew to board, as a means of decisive victory.
At that moment, the outer jib, attached to the foremast, swung in Allen’s direction, as if summoned. Allen took hold and in a swashbuckling manner, grabbed tightly to the rope hanging from the jib, leapt from the bow, and launched his hideous figure towards the attacking vessel. The monster seemed to fly to the amazement and horror of the other ship’s crew, as the mainmast gave way and crashed down upon the other ship’s one loaded cannon. The final cannon blast sent a projectile directly at Allen, and in midair, the two collided in an explosive cloud of blood and infected tissue that descended upon the aggressors in a red mist!
Disturbed by the vision of the monster and unable to board, the stunned vessel moved beyond as the Ameritas sailed comfortably behind. In the distance, the cries of madness could be heard coming from the ship as Consumptive Morbus overwhelmed the crew.