In the year 1822, in the South Pacific aboard the Ameritas, Allen Markum looked to the front of the ship. There, its figurehead, a sea monster named Mascotte, was carved into its prow. Allen gazed beyond and out over the endlessly rumpled ocean. The waves rose and fell like many gills of a living thing. Its vastness was beautiful, but also a reminder of how small the great ship was.
Allen pulled on a rope along with two other men. His splitting fingertips stung, but he dared not stop.
“Raise the mainsail below the first yard,” a voice ordered.
Allen turned his attention to the first mate. A chiseled-jaw young man of nearly the same age, his buttoned short coat exaggerated his tall, slender figure. He read aloud from a wooden plaque the setting of sails for the evening.
Allen glanced down at his own meager clothing. A shocking crack rang his skull. Though the pain was excruciating, he knew better than to let hold of the rope.
“Stop yer lollies,” the familiar but terrifying voice of the boatswain shouted. He pointed at Allen with his club, a belaying pin used to secure lines.
“Aye, aye,” Allen answered. His head throbbed and his body ached in all places where the salty water entered his open wounds.
After they raised the mainsail, Allen rubbed the bump on the back of his head and cautiously looked at his assailant. Zebadiah Booth, the boatswain, handled the ship’s supplies and was assistant to the captain.
Zebadiah’s round head with thick tufted brows and mutton chop side whiskers framed his sunburnt face. He was sturdy and fattened from good eating, but roughened from life aboard a ship. His skin displayed the same roughness as the salted pork the sailors ate at every meal.
Captain Neal smoked a pipe and watched from atop the quarterdeck at the rear of the ship. His short, stout figure was unmoved by the heave of the vessel.
Zebadiah looked to the captain, who nodded with pleasure. Then he disappeared below deck. The first mate continued to shout his orders.
The crew’s attention shifted toward the rear of the ship when Zebadiah clamored to the main deck, pale and wide-eyed. He climbed the steps of the quarterdeck, nearly out of breath. Alarm expressed upon his face. He whispered to the captain.
Captain Neal’s eyebrows rose as he listened. He called the first mate who approached and stood near the steps looking upward. The same expression of concern grew over him.
“You two, come with me!” The first mate ordered after he turned to face the crew and pointed.
Two powerful sailors followed the first mate below deck. Zebadiah descended the steps and faced the sailors.
“The barnacle madness!” Zebadiah shouted.
Every man’s expression changed to fright.
“Consumptive Morbus,” the captain announced. “Stay back from him when he’s brought topside.”
“Finish tying down,” Zebadiah ordered.
The sailors resumed tying the ropes but looked around cautiously. They had just stopped when a hatch sprung open. The first mate and one man climbed out, pulling a rope that descended into the hull.
They pulled the rope taut to the hatch’s side and strained to lift what it hid at its end. Others joined the struggle. Soon, five men pulled the rope that coiled quickly behind them.
A shrilling scream rose from the depth of the hole that grew stronger when the line was drawn up. The hair on Allen’s neck became electrified, waiting for what they had suspended at the end.
Finally, a leg was visible and then a squirming body flopped out.
“Keep back. Don’t let him touch ya lest you join him.” Zebadiah ordered.
The crew gathered, inching closer.
“He’s contaminous!” shouted Zebadiah.
The crew froze.
Zebadiah then rushed to a casket and scooped a bucket of pickle juice. He returned to the man and doused him twice. ”That’ll purify ‘im for the time,” Zebadiah announced with confidence, then dropped the bucket.
The sailor rose to his feet dazed and blinked from the sting in his eyes. Allen froze with horror when he saw the man clearly. The sailor’s eyes bulged and his fingertips pointed wickedly.
Zebadiah rushed forward and rammed the sailor with his club in the gut.
The ailing man fell to his knees with a squeal and then bent over.
Captain Neal watched silently.
“Get the poles,” Zebadiah ordered.
Five men grabbed barge poles. They forced the moaning man to his back.
He screamed with anger until he broke into cries and pleaded for release, “I won’t hurt anyone, I promise, I’ll stay apart from the others, please.”
Zebadiah clubbed the man unconscious, then stood over him with contempt and nodded with self-approval. He glanced at the captain, whose eyes narrowed but did not blink.
“A rope,” Zebadiah said aloud.
The first mate took one of the many coiled ropes that hung along the railing and tossed it to Zebadiah, who fashioned a simple noose. Everyone watched as he tied a self-tightening bowline knot without looking at his hands.
“Pin him tight lest he wakens,” Zebadiah ordered. Then he looped the open end around the sailor’s neck without touching him and tossed the slack over a boom.
Allen watched the fear in the surrounding faces transform into anger. Two men eagerly grabbed the opposite end of the rope and pulled with the force of their combined weight that tightened the knot and peeled the sailor from the floor headfirst.
“Throw him over,” the captain ordered.
They hoisted the body above the deck while the crew shouted insults.
“Feed him to the sharks,” a voice cried out.
“He’s an abomination,” shouted another.
The sailor’s body hung with its elongated neck stretched in a way that made the torso appear disproportionate. The head tilted to the side with an outstretched tongue.
“Cut the first rope from his leg, but leave the other,” the first mate ordered.
They pushed the boom out over the water and the body swung like a pendulum. The first mate gave a nod, and someone released the rope. The body splashed far below in the water, out of sight.
Captain Neal spoke, “Best that any man who grows sick from the Morbus should take matters into his own hands. You will be shown no mercy, here.”
The captain tapped his pipe against a railing, casting the spent ash into the swirling breeze around him. He then ascended the steps and stepped into his cabin.
After sunset, nobody spoke of the incident. Allen’s mind filled with thoughts of contamination. He looked around at the other men who sat in quiet contemplation.
That night Allen took his post at the topgallant of the mizzenmast during the second dogwatch. There, it magnified the pitch and roll of the ship. Near the top of the mast, Allen proudly rode the seas and stargazed.
With his feet upon the top cross member and a harness tied around his waist, the threat of falling was only fleeting, though a momentary lapse into slumber could be life threatening. Any lack of vigilance could cause injury, and yet there was freedom and calmness at the top of the mast, away from the stark contrast of flogging and harsh work on deck. Sleep meant death, yet death meant to sleep.
Against the coarse surface of the mast, Allen carved the final touches of an image of Mascotte among the other carvings of names and doodles that riddled its surface.
He called out to the foremast watchman, whose perch was above and nearest the prow. “Ahoy, Milton! Beware if ye piss on Mascotte. She’ll bite ya clean down to the gristle.”
“Pipe it, dog!” Milton called back.
Allen smiled and blew the wood bits from his carving and sighed in accomplishment, then dreamt of exotic ports and seafaring stories others told. Stories of hardy ho, lost at sea, and wayward woe.
The greatest woe of all was the contagion Consumptive Morbus, or known 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.
Allen hugged the mast with his face pressed against the image during a rough sway. The midnight-bell watch rang out and Allen began his downward climb. 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 poked out from the mast. He struggled to descend amid the pain and gave way to the ache from his laceration when he reached the deck.
Ben, Allen’s most cherished mate aboard the ship, prepared to ascend. He noticed Allen’s injury, and paused with concern, “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.
Allen didn’t question the contents within the coconut. He trusted his friend’s judgment, for it was common to acquire a coconut and continue its use after the original contents were drunk. The container infused a hint of the exotic flavor with its next filling.
Below in the sleeping quarters of the berth deck, Allen dressed his wound and winced, then laid his aching body in the woven cradle of his hammock. He fell asleep and swung from side to side in a lullaby measured by the hum of the ocean and the moaning squelch of the hull.
Many hours into his sleep, a vivid stabbing pain that ran the length of his leg awakened him. Through a porthole, a band of moonlight cascaded upon his lower half. In the gleam, Allen pulled back the bandage of his wound to expose a grotesque encrusted ulcer spreading beyond the lesion.
Deep breaths and nervous twitches overcame him after he wiped the sweat from his eyes, and sensed sharp protruding barnacles that had erupted at his extremities, 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 contracted Consumptive Morbus. An urge to run swept over him. He shook in a state of panic. It overcame him 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. He crept in between and under the suspended cradles that swayed against the yaw, heave, and surge of the ship in an unpredictable manner, tied in a maze throughout the berth deck.
Allen exited a hatch into the cool salty air. The moonlight cast a shadow over the rising steps to the quarterdeck. Allen crouched in the small wedge of darkness next to it.
In the night’s silence, faint creaking timbers and bumping tackle murmured like the respiration of a sleeping giant whose chest rose with the swelling waves. Primitive instincts rose within Allen that controlled his fear to run. Rather, he stalked toward the foremast with the stealth of a cat. He restrained his breathing against his pounding heart.
The straight edge of the gunwale railing tilted gently against the ocean’s horizon. The furthest-most edge of the water was sharply cut by the faint blue that marked the sun’s intention to rise. A waning moon hung two fists above the West. Somewhere between night and day, animal and human, life and death, Allen’s tortured mind searched for safety.
The ship seemed to straddle this narrow dark space between the glow of milky moonlight and the crack of dawn. Above, the masts stabbed upward into the sky that was both black and piercing white from the magnitude of stars. The mainmast rose into the starry darkness, where Allen knew a man stood on watch in a crow’s nest above the topgallant. Only the foresail was unfurled and the shrouds of climbing nets pointed outward from the middle of the masts like spider webs. Allen looked toward the prow of the ship where his only place of hiding could be.
He avoided detection until he reached the center of the ship. There, Allen came face to face with Zebadiah Booth. The silhouette of the boatswain stood before him, unmoving. His fuzzy brows rose starkly around the black recesses of his eyes. Each man paused at the sight of the other’s shadowy figure. Allen watched the darkened features of Zebadiah’s face change with the realization of his condition.
“Morbus,” the word quietly bubbled from Zebadiah’s lips.
With an animal’s instinct, Allen grabbed Zebadiah by the throat to prevent another sound. Easily, his jagged fingertips sliced through his tissue. He held him to the deck, choking him to death.
For a moment Allen crouched over the motionless body of the boatswain, pondering the magnitude of what he had done. In a panic, Allen hurried to the front of the ship and hid in a small enclosure at the bow that was used to store tackle, convinced that his condition necessitated the act.
When he overheard cries that alerted the captain to the boatswain’s murder, he feared the worst. He stayed hidden during intermittent calls of his name at daybreak and whispered stories of him falling overboard at midday. His paranoia swirled, knowing a search would expose his morbid secret. The box which smelled of rotted hemp rope became his bed.
Allen crept out briefly to steal a drink of water from a cask that night. In his box, he wavered between paranoid fear and hysterical chuckles. 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 Zeb,” someone cried.
The words were venomous and wavered with fear. Allen peeked out to witness Ben’s croustade figure with barnacled hands and face drove across the upper deck. The mob corralled Ben with barge poles. They pushed him back and forced him to stand upon the railing of the main deck while he clung to a rope extended from the mainsail.
The tumorous 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.
Someone launched a pin 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 body tipped backward like a falling 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. He rummaged his hands across his body, analyzing his encrusted tumorous form, and realized that anything still human in him had nearly perished. The affliction intensified and Allen’s 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, then threw Milton’s corpse overboard before he crawled back into his box.
That morning, just before the seven-bells watch rang, Allen awoke to distinctive shouts, squeaking pulleys, lapping ropes, and the flapping release of sails. A panic he himself was familiar with; attack by a rival vessel.
He rehearsed the call to “man battle stations” at the exact moment it was being ordered. It revitalized him with a sense of duty as cannon blasts from the opposing ship grew nearer.
Allen peered out and observed the action. A full-rigged sloop neared. Square topsails and a familiar blue and red flag atop its mast signaled the dreaded Cormorant.
Allen watched as the first mate struggled to gain control. The crewmen clamored over one another in a meager counter-attack. Captain Neal stood upon the quarterdeck with a raised sword. His mouth moved in shouts, but his voice never rose above the battle. The absence of the boatswain proved critical, for the upper deck was not stocked and organized. All seemed lost, and Allen waited for the end, helplessly tasting death.
A cannon blast crippled the mainmast, and an explosion blew the figurehead off of the prow, 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. A dismayed crew, awed by what appeared to be the sea monster of the Ameritas came to life.
Someone cried out, “Mascotte!”
In unison, prayers, cries, and cheers filled the ranks.
The cannon fire mellowed, and the attacking ship prepared to glide parallel to the Ameritas for its crew to board as a means of a decisive victory.
At that moment, the outer jib, attached to the foremast, swung in Allen’s direction. Heroically, he took hold and in a swashbuckling manner, clutched to the rope hanging from the jib. He leaped 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.
At that moment, the mainmast of the Ameritas gave way and crashed through the mainsail of the other ship. It landed upon a loaded cannon before it slipped into the sea. The final blast from the cannon sent a projectile directly at Allen. In midair, the two collided in an explosive cloud of blood and infected tissue that descended upon the aggressors in a red mist.
As quickly as they came together, the two ships drifted apart. A moment of reassessment waved over both crews. The sailors of the Cormorant idled with indecision from the sudden turn of events.
Disturbed by the vision of the monster and unable to board, the crippled Cormorant drifted away like an enormous piece of flotsam that turned oddly with the rift of surging swells and rolled excessively to its port side without a sense of direction. The beleaguered Ameritas sailed slowly behind.
A northeasterly wind pushed both ships in the same direction. The afternoon drew on and the ships maintained their course as Captain Neal considered revenge. The Cormorant continued to show no deliberate bearing except what the wind and waves brought upon it.
Once again, the first mate called out the evening commands while the sails of the Cormorant showed no sign of change. That night, the crew of the Ameritas heard shrieking cries of madness whisper over the waves. Screams that resembled mythological sirens but of a hellish type as Consumptive Morbus overwhelmed the crew of the Cormorant.