This story is by Rob Leigh-Hunt and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rolling under midnight in the South Pacific, Calloway’s ocean-going tug drifted. A storm was coming, and The Jezebel pitched and yawed in a heavy swell. Nobody watched from the wheelhouse—the bridge vacant. Laying on her back on the main deck, Dr Tiffany Griffen was still conscious. Dried blood caked thickly around her mouth and throat.
She knew she ought to be dead. Death, she considered, might be preferable. Captain Mitch Calloway was dead. Tiffany could not imagine otherwise. Guilt laid its hand on her heart as she remembered how he had been taken. Calloway, a grizzled ex-marine with his clay pipe and terrible squint, had been every inch an old sea dog. He deserved better than what he got. Calloway was also the last person to have seen Professor Baylock alive.
According to the harbour master, Baylock had often ventured out aboard The Jezebel in search of remote and uncharted islands. Tiffany and Mitch spent a few nights discussing the possible fate of Baylock. One night, as they both cheated at cards via the light of a single storm lamp, Calloway told her about the last expedition to an island NW of Tokelau.
Baylock had apparently needed saving from the jaws of a legion of mutant ants. Calloway had tapped with his pipe at a carbine hooked onto the wall above him. Tiffany had laughed. With a steely look from Calloway’s one good eye harpooning Tiffany to her seat, he said that those creatures had killed his Deck Hand. “Big as dogs, they were. Tore him right in half,” he said. Mitch blamed nuclear testing.
Puffing a cloud of smoke into the air, Mitch told of how the professor had been nothing but fascinated. Even though Steven Baylock was a well-respected Harvard scientist, Mitch had not been much impressed. “Poor dumb bastard,” he said.
After a year of zero communication from Baylock, the faculty sanctioned Dr Griffin’s search that led her all the way from Harvard to Honolulu. Then aboard The Jezebel out to the Atoll upon which Baylock had insisted on remaining.
They arrived at dusk. The long wooden jetty appeared as though someone had tried to destroy it. It was still enough for Calloway, and he tied the boat to a few solid posts. Griffin insisted on going alone onto the island. Popeye gave her two hours; then he would come and find her.
Tiffany heard the distant rhythmic life of the Atoll before she saw it. She was glad of the sound as deep green quickly gave way to deepest black. Thick darkness engulfed her amid the jungle. The stink of smoke came to her. Then it was the sound of voices chanting in unison. A yellowish glow beckoned. As Tiffany stepped closer, she saw a large fire in the middle of a clearing. Branches were being thrown upon it by a huddle of naked men and women. Flames roared and stabbed at the dark sky.
The figures danced as silhouettes casting long, feverish shadows that leapt across the uneven ground.
As her vision adjusted, she saw a cage nearby. A wooden affair, it looked strong enough to hold the emaciated creature crouching inside.
“Doctor Griffin, you should not have come here.,” said the creature. Tiffany stared. Her mentor was near unrecognisable. “Oh, my sweet lord. Professor Baylock.”
“You must get away, now,” said Baylock. Tiffany, making sure to stay hidden, got as close as possible.
“I’m going to get you out,” insisted Tiffany.
“I cannot leave. I need to be here.”
“What is this?” Asked Tiffany, pointing to the parade going around the fire.
“This is a cleansing ceremony. They must throw the branches of the forbidden tree onto the fire as they go,” said Baylock. Tiffany watched the dancing horror. “Why?”
“This,” said Baylock indicating the fleshy orbs that were growing from the tree nearest to Tiffany. “To eat of the fruit is a deadly sin,” he said, his gaunt face marked with the deepest sincerity. He licked his lips as he stared at her. Tiffany stepped closer. “Baylock, listen to me. There is a boat waiting. We can get you all the help you need,” she whispered. Reaching up to a pear-shaped object dangling from a branch, she broke it off from the branch. “Whatever they have given to you is nothing to do with this.”
“ I said everything you have and more, but there is a power here. I have felt it. I have a hunger that cannot be sated. Everything gives way to the hunger, to the thirst. It is a curse that I have brought upon myself. These bars are the wages of arrogance.”
“How can you believe that you of all people?” asked Tiffany, trying desperately to keep her voice low. Baylock did not answer at first. The chanting of the natives had become muted. Only the sound of the fire consuming anything thrown to it could be heard. Then, “I want flesh, Griffin.” Baylock licked his lips again. Something wicked and untethered flashed behind his eyes that became sad. “ I want your flesh.”
“You’re sick. They have got into your mind,” hissed Tiffany, becoming distraught. Baylock began to sob. “ The cage is a kindness, my purgatory a mercy. I can never leave,” wept Baylock. He began to tremble as he gripped the bars of the cage. The tears on his grimy face shone in the light of the fire. Tiffany checking that none at seen her yet, made one last effort to change Baylock’s mind. More branches were thrown to the flames. A shower of red sparks flew.
“There is nothing to fear. Look, I will show you,” said Tiffany, and she bit into the fleshy ovary.
“No! Yelled Baylock. The tribe halted their actions, and those same silhouettes began to approach. They were carrying spears. Tiffany grabbed a rock and heaved it at the nearest member of the tribe. As they neared, the loud reports from a carbine erupted close by. Calloway shouted at Tiffany to get to the boat. “Don’t wait for me, just go!” he said loudly.
Tiffany ran. The gunfire was loud, but it halted after only a few bursts. Tiffany stopped to look back. The man had dropped a few of his attackers, but the Captain was dragged off toward the fire. The natives were after her again. She jumped and skidded blind through the jungle. Arrows flew. They slapped into trees and clattered against rocks.
At last, she was clear. Tiffany saw The Jezebel waiting. Tiffany skipped along the jetty then leapt into the deck of the tug. As she hurriedly untied the boat, the foremost native jumped in after her. Tiffany grabbed the spear that jabbed. A monstrous strength coursed through Tiffany’s veins, and the boy was easily overcome. Tiffany rammed the spear deep into his chest. The boy fell with an expression of amused surprise. Tiffany licked her lips and gunned the engines. The others arrived but were too slow for the Jezebel. Tiffany hauled out of there.
After several hours, the fuel gave out. Tiffany’s world became one of flat horizoned silence. The only response to the mayday call was static. Tiffany licked her lips and looked at the body of the native on the main deck.
She wanted to get rid of it over the side. Then, that monstrous strength again. Something was at work in her, and she knew it, but Tiffany did not hesitate to sink her teeth into the flesh of the dead boy. She devoured everything until only skeletal remains were thrown overboard. Three days passed by, and the strength left her. She lay on her back and waited for the inevitable. The Jezebel drifted. The storm arrived in great white slabs the width and length of the sky. Lightning ripped through the darkness. The hand of God slammed the earth in deafening rage. Tiffany thought of Baylock in exile as consciousness began to slip away.
The chugging sounds of a large vessel neared. Tiffany could see it coming up alongside. Voices called out to her from The Ortega. She could not answer; her parched mouth was unable to get a sound out. As hands grabbed at her, Tiffany was sure she could smell the blood pumping through their bodies in a pulsing rhythm she could feel. As her rescuers hurried about, Tiffany Griffin smiled and licked her lips.