David Colbus


The Twin Lanterns’ namesakes lit the pub with a smoky glow, smudged and stained brass swinging over the heads of the storm-drenched men. The fish oil that fueled the flames gave off a pungent odor that mixed with the smell of the booze and the crowd. When the sailors walked in, they brought with them the scent of gin on their lips and tar on their hands. Where the whalers huddled, it smelled of the ocean, of salt and oil and blood.

                With no man willing to leave the comfort of hearth and cup for the storm outside, every seat and stool was filled. A game of able-whackets had broken out in one corner, and a crooked card game in the other. But mostly, the storm-stranded men boasted and laughed, whispered and jeered. Every man had his cup, and every man had his tale.

                A particularly loud old salt named Pete had gathered a crowd. He told a tale of monsters, acting it out with ale-soaked enthusiasm. “Nah,” he said, “nah, it’s true! We pull on the harpoon, an’ the old beastie’s head came out of the water, horns and everything. The boys and I throw every bleedin’ harpoon at him, but he just shook them free.”

                “Yer a lying, Pete. You spent the whole night in your drink,” his crewmate said, and Pete choked on his beer. 

                “Amn’t!” said Pete, “I’ve never touched a drop in my life.” As he staggered into a dignified position, the ale sloshed from his cup. “Saw it with my own eyes. You were too busy dealing with your French problem.” As the men started to quarrel, a mug slammed down on the table.

                “You haven’t seen whaleshit,” a hoarse voice said. The crowd of sailors parted to let a tall man in ragged clothes through. He sat on Pete’s abandoned stool, and leaned back against the wall. Salt stained hair spilled from beneath a battered, rimmed hat. “Aren’t no horns on a sea monster.”

                Ol’ Pete crossed his arms and bit his lip. “Sea monsters come in all sizes. Any Jack Tar knows that,” Pete said, his bravado somewhat punctured

                The tall man let out a rattling cough, or maybe it was a laugh. He took a sip of his ale, bringing the foam up to his scarred lip. “There’s only one monster out there,” he said, gesturing with his mug to the door, “and I’ve seen him.” The storm’s wind made the timbers in the walls creak and groan. A draft had set the lanterns swinging and creaking, and the unfaithful light set grim shadows on the man’s face. “Leviathan.”

                Pete laughed. “Leviathan? It is a special night. Man’s seen Leviathan with his own eyes, and we have Blackbeard over in the corner too!” He set his mug down on a table painted the same red as his alcohol-flushed face. “Maybe the Queen will come for a visit too.” He spat on the muddy floor. “You’ve not seen Leviathan.”

                The tall man was smiling now, the scar tissue curling his lip, revealing every one of his teeth, shiny and straight as planks of timber. “I did. I sailed on the Vesta.”

                Pete shook his head. “No one sailed that ship but ghosts,” he said. “It went to the bottom of the sea five years ago.”

                “And only one man survived.” The tall man reached a hand to the brim of his hat. “A man with hands marked by cachalot scars and eyes that glint with the setting sun’s green fire.” Like the scratches of sand on sea glass, a thousand white lines crossed every inch of his hand. He took the hat by its brim and laid it on the table. Brushing his hair back, the tall man looked at Pete with grey eyes. Sailors aren’t born with those kind of eyes, the sea has to give them to them. And when his eyes caught the lanterns, they did shine, just like fire.

                Pete staggered away from the man. “God damn, it’s Samuel Pound.” The name whispered its way through the room, and left a silence in the air. Every sailor south of Scotland had heard of the Vesta, and every man who’d drunk at a seaside pub knew about Samuel Pound. The storms heavy breath filled the absence of laughter and shouts. There was a tale in the air, as sure as there was salt in blood, and every whore-bred sailor could taste it.

                Samuel Pound smiled that scar-lipped smile that gave men shivers. “I’ll tell you boys about monsters.”

                “The ocean is a mean bitch. Every one of you knows that. Give her years of your life, and she’ll eat the marrow from your bones. We all know the kinds of children she makes with the souls she takes. Things with great spiked arms that drag down flagships, and massive whales that will eat a man whole. She gives birth to the starving sharks, and the serpents with fangs for scales and poison for breath. But them, them’s just beasts. There’s no monster but God’s own.

                The Vesta was a good ship, with a crew fine as any other. We were sailing past Scilly, over the drowned city of Lyonesse. We had Tommies on board, near 30 of them, along with the forty of us salts, a hold filled with guns and food. We were doing a job, moving stuff where we were told. It was a good ship, the pay was fine, and the captain let us drink.

                Dangerous, the Cornish coast. It was night, and it was still, and it was dark. I sat on deck, keeping a lookout. I didn’t want to run on the rocks, and with clouds covering the moon and the stars, I got nervous. But it wasn’t rocks that got us. It must have been an explosion. Gunpowder in the hold going off, I don’t know. I was on deck, gently afloat a sleeping ocean, and then I was breathing in salt through my mouth and smoke through my nose.

                The devil’s own luck gave me a piece of the deck to drag myself onto, and savded me from the drowned and fiery fate that took the rest of the crew. There was fire, there was screaming, and then the ship was gone with every other damned soul on it. I held onto that wood, just another piece of flotsam holding me above the line that separated the arrogance of humanity from the despair of the depths. I held on, I breathed, and prayed that God might listen to my salt-spewed words. There was me, there was the cloud-swallowed night, and there was dark water. I was as doomed a man as any, and my splinter-ribboned hands bled the brightest red, the only color in that dark world.

                There’s a color darker than darkness. That night, the water was as black as ink, but that’s no darkness. No, there’s a darkness that rises from below, darker than sin, darker than all the black between the stars. You see that darkness, and know that Leviathan is come.

                Leviathan is no beast. Leviathan is a storm come alive. It answers the prayers of blood and salt, of blue-lipped despair. It tasted my death, and the darkness spread about me, a dark like I’d never known light. And the cold, such cold.

                I died once, as a boy. Got my ankle caught in a net while swimming under the docks. By the time anyone noticed, and fished me out, I was gone. They found some learned man to breathe life back into my cold lips, to bring me back. But you remember something when you die that way. You remember the darkness, the absolute cold. That’s the cold Leviathan brings from the depths, racing ahead of it like some dreadful herald. It’s the presence of unknowable death, and it steals the life and breath from you.

                Something massive pushed against the surface, a great mound of water, like God had placed a waterfall in the sky, like Lyonesse was being lifted back from the Celtic Sea. A mast burst out, my very own ship rose from the ocean like a ghost. The mast, the hull, everything was splintered and charred and vomiting black water. Great splinters and planks grinned with fearsome fangs, inviting me back to deck. And then it toppled, and fell to the side, hitting the rushing and swirling waters with a great crack.

                What did I see as the water fell? No horned beast, or great whale, or giant squid. This deep lurker was the awe of the ocean itself. Each of its scales a storm, every tooth a craggy rock. It breathed thunder and hurricanes, and every pause between was the calm that sailors dread. It filled the air with the smell of blood and salt. Its coils twisted for miles, all lightning and fire that made the water boil. It’s an old thing, boys, born at the start of the world, the sea’s claim to all our souls. Its size defies imagination, it can’t be taken in with one glance.

                It was looking at me. Four eyes, boulder-sized black pearls staring at me. Deep and dark, without bottom, and glowing with lightning, they stared into my own heart. Boys, I’ve known a woman as a wife, and many others besides. I’ve had men call me brother, and at least one call me son. I’ve had a holy man wash my feet. I’ve been starved, and spit on, and left for dead. But right then, a monster greater than any king looked at me with love. Love you’ve not seen in your wife’s eye, nor your brother’s or your mothers. Love so dark, so deep, that not even the Devil could turn you from it. I’m a man of faith, boys. But Leviathan, Leviathan is our angel. Our despair.

                It looked at me. It looked at me, and opened its awful mouth. And it sang. Maybe you’ve heard it from afar. Maybe you know the song. Have you ever heard the bells of Dunwich?  Have you ever heard a ship’s bell in an empty sea? Then you’ve heard Leviathan sing in its sleep, as it dreamed in the abyss. But I floated before it, like a faithful disciple, not protected by miles of water like you lot.

                When it sang, it was as if every church bell in the world were ringing.

                As if the whole ocean become ice crashing into itself.

                As if the soul of every harpooned whale cried out at once.

                As if all of Davy Jones’s rattling bones hung from nooses within that great mouth.

                As the ringing filled my head, my bones, and my soul, a light, green and blue, rose from the depths and filled Leviathan’s darkness. A shimmering, impossible light, like sunbeams beneath the waves. It grew so bright, and so loud, and for that moment all I knew was Leviathan, and its eyes, darkness and light staring into me. As quickly as it came, the song faded away, and with it, the light. Just the darkness, the last sailor floating on a piece of wood, and Leviathan. With nary a sound, Leviathan dived, and the only thing left in the whole damned world was my damned soul, and that was just about gone too. As Leviathan dived, so did I, prying my fingers free.

                I might be a damned soul and a drowned soul, but I’m not a goddamn dead soul. Not yet. I swam, paddled, kicked, swore, and spit. No way I could have made it, with the shore not even a dot on the horizon.

                Not that one of you cares, but I woke on the rocks of Land’s End, sun climbing above the cliffs. I climbed too, up to safety, slicing what was left of my fingers into ribbons on the rock. As I reached the top of the rocks, I looked back out to the sea, only survivor of the Vesta. Each of us damned ourselves the second we married the ocean, and she’ll take us all before the devil does.”

                He finished his story, and brought the mug to his lips. Every sailor in there was staring into their cups, or at the lanterns swinging above. None would meet his fiery eyes, or seek out those scarred hands. His ale finished, his tale done, Samuel Pound put on his hat and walked out into the storm. No one went to fill their own cup. No one moved or talked. Not one wondered why he left shelter and drink for the savage rain.

                No, they all sat there in silence, listening carefully to the faint bells ringing over the sounds of the storm.

Image from Pixabay.

Image from Pixabay.

David Colbus is a scientist, student, and writer. M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University, interning at the NYC Parks Emerging Tech office, he strives to build a hopeful future. Frequently dreams about dragons and aliens and monsters, which are never as scary as they should be. Also has a rad podcast about social science called The Defamiliars. Contact at davidcolbus@yahoo.com