I don’t know why I’m writing this. Maybe it’s to make sense of the past, maybe it’s to try to leave something for posterity, if anyone ever manages to find us here. Maybe it’s just for myself. Writing is all I really know how to do, anyway. Or at least, all I think I know how to do.
If anything seems a bit muddled, then I really am sorry. Right now, I’m a bit muddled. More than a bit, actually. But I’ll try to lay things out as clearly as I can.
[spoiler]It was a Wednesday, in the March of 1902. That, at least, I remember. I woke slowly, sliding off the narrow white cot with a faint groan. The cabin, which I shared with five other men, was entirely empty. I had been woken by the shouts of the crew on the deck.
I walked up the rickety staircase, still chasing away traces of sleepiness. As I reached the top step, the sight of the morning sky nearly caused me to fall back down them.
Large geometric clouds filled the air, almost perfect white spheres that hung down from the heavens, the sun casting a strange warm glow that outlined their puffy figures. I drifted over to the side of the ship, mouth slightly open, head straining upwards.
“What d’you think of them, hmm?”
I started in surprise. The Captain had a habit of silently sidling up next to you and speaking in your ear.
“It’s . . . It’s beautiful. What are they?”
He snorted. His breath smelled of stale chewing tobacco and wood polish.
“Beautiful, eh? Funny, that. Never thought of them as beautiful . . .”
“But what are they?”
Suddenly invigorated, he slapped me on the back.
“Clouds, boy! Mammatus clouds. The come around when a storm’s blowing up, but I’ve never seen ‘em so thick.”
He grinned at me, long, yellow teeth shining out from behind his bristly gray beard. He gestured towards the deck.
“We’ll be getting her ready for the storm today. A big one’s coming up . . .”
He chuckled happily and strolled of, bellowing something at the steersman.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and leaned against the side of the ship rather awkwardly, watching the activity. I wasn’t a sailor, you see, I was a journalist. The Captain had been generous enough to allow me to accompany his crew aboard the Rosaline. I was employed by the Philadelphia Weekly, and was to write an article on the daily routine of a sailor. Now, I wasn’t quite sure who in Philadelphia would be interested in the daily life of a sailor, but the whole idea had seemed rather dashing and adventurous.
I headed back down the stairs to collect my notes. I thought briefly of attempting to participate in the preparations, but decided against it. After the incident with the sails yesterday, I suspected the crew wouldn’t be too eager for my help.
I flipped to a fresh page in my notebook.
Mammatus clouds, I wrote, lay above the ship in enchanting round orbs. The Captain says they indicate volatile weather, and an oncoming storm. The crew are diligently readying the ship.
I stopped, and stared blankly at the wall. Sighing, I put the journal aside and went back on deck.
The Captain had come in that night. He’d tried to stay up on deck through the storm, but even he needed sleep. The Captain’s cabin was located in a little house-like structure above deck, and he thought the winds were too strong for it to be safe. Being of the lowest rank, I gave up my bed to him. Whenever the ship hit a bad wave, we’d all roll to one side of the room, cursing out everything we could swear at.
I had thought that the sailors manned the deck in storms, but tonight we all crouched in the bunks. One of the men had stuck his head out into the open, and he reported that the real storm hadn’t yet begun. The wind was gaining speed, howling into the night.
After a few hours, everyone else was asleep, or pretending to be. The floorboards were unforgiving, and I was still awake. It didn’t sound too bad up above. It would be interesting, I thought, to be able to write about what a storm looks like at sea. I wouldn’t actually go on deck, just pop my head up for a glance, like the sailor had done.
As I crept across to the staircase, I had the same feeling as a child does who is creeping downstairs late at night on Christmas Eve. I knew it was wrong, but pure curiosity pulled me onwards.
I crouched down on the top step. It was silent. The wooden floor planks were black with water, but there was almost no wind and only a light drizzle of rain.
I stood, excitement building, and took a few tentative steps. The Captain’s cabin was a wreck - the planks that boarded up the portholes had somehow been torn off by the sheer force of the storm. One of the larger wooden sheets used lay on the deck, a long, bent nail sticking out of it, a testament to the incredible force of the winds. I picked it up, rubbing the nail with my fingers. It was definitely hard metal, and definitely crooked.
Peering down the side of the vessel, I saw the calm, black waves. The air was cold, with a sharp bite to it. I felt a peaceful sense of solitude, breathing in the salty scents in the vast, perfect silence.
That was when the wind hit.
It was a powerful gust, knocking the air out of my lungs. My hands flailed out, trying to find the ship’s wall, but they slipped on the wet wood. I tried to scream, but could only let out a small squeak as I plunged into the freezing water.
It was cold. That fact, above all, is the one I remember now. The sheer iciness of the water as it hit me seemed to turn every other sense off in its intensity. Bubbles streamed from my mouth, and I clawed upwards.
When I surfaced, the harsh wind burnt my wet cheeks.
“Hello? Someone? Er . . .”
I tried to shout louder.
Something distinctly slimy brushed against me, and I recoiled. It was the wooden plank. I tried to clamber up onto it, and after flipping over a few times, it floated nicely. I resumed the shouting, squinting in the darkness for the ship.
I sat there, shivering and yelling, for a handful of hours. It seemed like a dream I was on the verge of waking up from; if only I could jolt myself awake, I would open my eyes to morning light streaming in through the stairwell. I tried that a few times, squeezing my eyes shut and flicking them open, only to be met with the oppressive darkness.
After a while, the shouts became interrupted by yawns. I was tired. I was all rather pathetic, really. Here I was, hopelessly stranded in the middle of the ocean, and I was falling asleep. The human body, however, doesn’t much care about what’s pathetic, and very soon I was asleep.
I woke with a violent jerk. I was lying in a cot almost exactly like the one on the former ship, but a bit narrower and with scratchier blankets. I raised my head cautiously. There was a small table to the right of the bed, and on it was an oil lamp, made of rich brass that still had a shine. As I swung my legs over, a tall man walked through the doorway, having to bend quite low. I coughed nervously before speaking.
“Er, hello. I’m sorry, I must’ve gone overboard, I was just trying to get a good look at the storm, I’m not a sailor, see, I’m a journalist, writing a story, about sailors, and there wasn’t any wind and I- I- I . . .”
My voice trailed off. The man had a very peculiar look on his face. It was a sort of pity, with some sadness mixed in. His eyes were an incredibly light blue, almost gray, the kind that could pierce one’s very soul.
“Yes, I know,” he replied. He pulled over a chair and sat, still looking at me.
“You . . . know? Where exactly am I?”
He gave a large sigh and leaned back in the chair. His clothing, I noticed, was very strange; he wore a long, blue coat, accompanied by white tights and small black shoes.
“The question, of course, is not where, but when,” he said. “And I’m afraid I can’t even answer that one.”
I stared at him, entirely confused,
“What do you mean, when? It’s 1902.”
He gave a bright smile. “Already? My, my. How quickly the years can slip.”
I began to feel as though I was missing a vital piece of information. Outside the open door to the room, a curious face appeared briefly. It was a small child, possibly a girl, in a long smock and a white, frilly bonnet.
I spoke slowly.
“What . . . year is it, then?”
“That’s a very difficult question, you know,” he answered. “Very difficult indeed. But a slightly easier one would be ‘what year did you board this boat?’”
I nodded my head slowly, never breaking contact with the blue eyes
“And the answer . . .?”
“Why, the greatest year of all. At least, in my opinion. 1706.”
I laughed. It was a nervous laugh, a pained laugh, and to be honest, it sounded more like a bark.
“Oh, yes, yes, very funny, very funny.” My voice was high and I spoke with trepidation. “This is, is, some kind of prank, hmm? Dress up like, like, like someone from 200 years ago, tell me I’m on, on, on some kind of ghost ship, hmm? You, you, you . . .”
I trailed off. The man was not smiling. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.
“You’ll adjust. We all do. It can take a long time, however. I am truly sorry. We all are.”
He turned in his chair and raised his voice.
“You can all come in now, I know you’re just itching to.”
About ten people crowded into the room, followed by two children, one of whom I’d seen peeking in. Their clothing varied greatly, and although I couldn’t tell from which period each came from, I saw a few Elizabethan neck-rings, quite a lot of very large dresses, and a man wearing nothing but a dirty cloth tied around his waist.
Something snapped. I ran through the crowd and up an old staircase, up to the fresh air of the deck. It still smelled the same as the air I had breathed yesterday. Leaning over the edge of the ship I let out a whimper as I stared at blackness below - no waves, no water, just . . . a void. Above me lay large, spherical clouds, floating peacefully in the sky.
And that’s why I’m here. Well, not really. That’s how I got here. Why I’m here, why any of us are here, is the question we all ask ourselves every hour of every day. The blue eyed man, whose name I learnt was Thomas, says that there can be glitches in life, that sometimes people fall through the cracks. He told me not to think of the ship as a ghost ship. We’re not dead, he said. We’re not ghosts. I asked him how he knew. He changed the subject.
Sometimes I think of how the Captain laughed at me in his disbelief when I told him the globes were beautiful. Back then, I didn’t understand why. I try to avoid looking up at them too much. We all do. The weather is unchanging, and we know that the tempest the clouds warn of will never appear.
But secretly, we’re all waiting for the storm.