First Monday Free Fiction: Old Mommark’s Tale

Old Mommark's Tale by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the September 2022 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

“Talk Like a Pirate Day” is September 19, so why not have a pirate story. Therefore, I give you Old Mommark’s Tale, the story of a pirate, a treasure and a mysterious island with a secret.

So take a seat in the most disreputable tavern in Tortuga and listen to…

Old Mommark’s Tale

 

Arr, my luvvies, let me tell you a tale. A tale that’s one hundred and ten percent true, honest to God, cross my heart and hope to die. And if my tale be just sailor’s yarn, then may I swing upon the gallows ere the week is through.

So buy me a cup of rum and I’ll tell you my tale. The true tale of how I escaped the island of horror.

***

’twas thirty years ago, when I was still a young whippersnapper, a cabin boy sailing under Captain Scarlet on the Bloody Skull and hoping for better things.

As ye may know, Captain Scarlet was the most feared pirate in all of the Caribbean in those days. He’d gotten that name both for the colour of his beard and the colour of the deck of a captured ship after he was done with her. Battle-hardened men shuddered and trembled when the Captain entered a room, while women fainted straight away. And when the Skull appeared on the horizon with its sails the colour of blood, many a sailor jumped over board rather than face Captain Scarlet. The Captain spread terror wherever he went, and that included us, his own crew.

The Bloody Skull was once again prowling the Caribbean, looking for booty, when the lookout suddenly yelled from the crow’s nest, “Ahoy, land ahead.”

Now that was very odd, cause there wasn’t supposed to be no land in that part of the Caribbean. Just sea and waves and sharks as far as the eye could see. Besides, the lookout was known to have indulged a bit much in the good old Jamaica rum the night before. So no one paid much heed to what he’d said and seen.

But then he yelled again, “Land ahead,” and again and again. And finally, the first mate Mr. Bones reached for his spyglass and peered through. He frowned and then handed the spyglass to Captain Scarlet, who peered through as well. For lo and behold, the lookout had been right. There really was land on the horizon. A small island, uncharted and not found on any map.

Now it just happened that Captain Scarlet was looking for a good spot to hide some treasure. And an island that’s not found on any map… well, there is no better place to hide a treasure on the Lord’s great big Earth.

So Captain Scarlet ordered the Bloody Skull to set course for the island. We anchored just off the coast. I still remember the jolt as the anchor hit the bottom of the sea. It was bad enough to knock several pirates off their feet and throw me down the staircase back below deck.

“Captain, something’s wrong,” Mr. Bones said, “I don’t like this.”

But the Captain would have none of it. He ordered a boat let into the water, a boat that carried Mr. Bones, Mr. Scrabbles, Captain Scarlet, the treasure chest and mine own self, Jakob Mommark. Mr. Scrabbles and my own self were rowing, Mr. Bones watched over the chest and Captain Scarlet stood at the bow, arms crossed, glowering at nothing in particular, as he was wont to do. The plume of his hat fluttered in the wind.

The sea was smooth that day, almost unnaturally calm. That should’ve warned us… but it didn’t. And so Mr. Scrabbles and me strained our muscles to row over to the island, for the treasure chest was very heavy indeed and Captain Scarlet not exactly light either.

Finally, we set the boat onto the beach. The Captain was the first to jump ashore, then Mr. Bones, then Mr. Scrabbles and finally my own self. As my boots hit the ground, I got the strangest sensation. For this was no ordinary beach. There was no sand, no pebbles, not even rock. Instead, the ground was smooth and springy like I’d never seen before and have never seen since.

The others noticed it, too. For Mr. Scrabbles had trouble keeping his footing, while Mr. Bones frowned and poked the ground with the tip of his boot. And in response, the ground — I swear to God that it’s true — the ground itself flinched and shuddered, as if it really did not like to be poked.

“I really don’t like this, Captain,” Mr. Bones said, “I think we should leave. Now.”

But Captain Scarlet paid him no heed. He just strutted ahead and his stride was so intimidating that even the ground itself shrank from his tread. Mr. Bones followed, one hand on the hilt of his cutlass, the other on the grip of his pistol. His eyes darted warily to and fro. Mr. Scrabbles and my own self brought up the rear, lugging the treasure chest between us over the strange, springy ground.

The island was small, barely five hundred yards across. Yet the land rose steeply, almost from the beach on. Soon Mr. Scrabbles and I were lugging the chest up a hill, careful not to slip on the strange, smooth ground.

The barren beach gave way to vegetation. First grassland, then shrubs and finally a cluster of trees at the very top of the hill. The leaves and vines and blades of grass were of blueish green and looked like no plants I’d ever seen. The leaves were thick and succulent like those of spurges or agaves or the tree the Spaniards call palo de hule or the shrub known as guayule. When you reached out to touch them, they would shrink back, and when you weren’t looking, they would brush against your arms and legs and attempt to wind themselves round your ankles. It was almost as if the plants of this uncharted island were living breathing things.

It wasn’t just me either, but our entire party. For branches and vines also grabbed for Mr. Scrabbles and Mr. Bones and soon we were hacking our way through the undergrowth with cutlasses and machetes. And where our blades hit the plants, a red sap spurted from the cuts that looked just like blood. Only the Captain was left strictly alone. Apparently, the plants were as afraid of him as we were.

Captain Scarlet led us further into the jungle, oblivious to our struggle.

“Hurry up, ye scurvy dogs,” he yelled back at us, “Or I swear, I’ll have the lot of you flogged and keelhauled.”

Since I neither wanted to be flogged nor keelhauled, I indeed hurried up, at least as best as I could. For the jungle was getting denser, the plants more aggressive. And through it all, there was that uncanny feeling that we were being watched.

The others noticed it, too. For Mr. Bones cut through a particularly amorous vine and quickened his step to catch up with Captain Scarlet.

“Captain,” he whispered, “Someone’s watching us.”

“Balderdash,” the Captain thundered, “You’re a fraidy cat, Bones. Who should be watching us — on a deserted island?”

Mr. Bones had no real answer to that. But unlike Mr. Scrabbles and my own self, he was not afraid of the Captain. “I got a really bad feeling ’bout this place,” he insisted, “We shouldn’t be here. This island, it feels wrong. And it does not want us here.”

And then Mr. Bones did something I’ve never seen no man do before or since. He reached for the Captain’s arm and grabbed him right by the sleeve of his splendid velvet coat.

“We should leave while we still can,” Mr. Bones urged.

Captain Scarlet spun around, slaughter and bloodshed in his eyes. “I could…” he said, “…easily maroon you on this island and find myself a new first mate in Tortuga. And now unhand me or face the consequences.”

My heart all but stopped, while my mind furiously debated what to do in case it came to a mutiny. Would I back the Captain, cruel tyrant that he was, or Mr. Bones, who’d always treated me with kindness? And once I chose a side, what would I do if the other won?

By now, Mr. Scrabbles and I had set down the chest. The sausage fingers of Mr. Scrabbles tightened on the hilt of his cutlass, while I drew the little dagger I carried. We both watched warily, wondering whose side to take.

The Captain stood with his back to me, so that I could have easily crept up to him and jabbed the point of my dagger against his back or put the blade against his throat. Yet I did not move, for the Captain’s threats were still ringing in my ears. And while I really did not want to be flogged or keelhauled, I liked the idea of being marooned on this horror of an island even less. So I remained frozen in place, while a branch entangled itself in my hair and a vine wrapped itself around my ankle and began slithering up my leg.

Mr. Bones’ thoughts must’ve been similar to mine. At any rate, he lowered his hand and even brushed some dust from the Captain’s coat.

“Apologies for speaking out of turn, Captain,” he said with a bow, “I was merely concerned for your welfare and that of the crew. And this place…” He cast a glance over his shoulder as if expecting to catch someone in the act of watching us. “…gives me the creeps.”

I brushed an adventurous branch from my hair and absentmindedly stabbed at the vine that was slithering up my leg, waiting with bated breath for Captain Scarlet’s reaction.

“Apology accepted.” The Captain gave Mr. Bones a brisk nod.

His eyes, black and bloodshot like the deepest pits of hell, now focussed on Mr. Scrabbles and mine own self. I thought, feared that he’d say something, yell at us, order us flogged or keelhauled or — worst of all — marooned on this island of terrors. My hand tightened on the dagger in my hand.

But the Captain never said anything. Instead, he poked the ground with the heel of his boot. And once again the ground, that unnaturally smooth ground that did not look like no soil at all, shrank back and shuddered. As if it really did not like to be poked at all.

“This place will do as good as any other,” Captain Scarlet said, “And now get to digging, ye scurvy dogs.”

So Mr. Bones, Mr. Scrabbles and my own self all reached for our shovels and began to dig. With worry in my heart, I watched as Mr. Bones thrust his shovel into the ground and made the first cut. For if this island did not like to be poked with heels and boot tips, then how much less would it like to be stabbed with spades and shovels?

But nothing could’ve prepared me for what happened next. For as soon as the spade cut into the ground, a disembodied scream echoed through the jungle. The whole island started to heave and shudder, until we were all thrown off our feet, even Captain Scarlet. The treasure chest was knocked over as well and sprang open, spilling jewels and pearls and gemstones and doubloons all over the jungle floor.

Once the shuddering ground calmed down enough that we could all sit up again, I saw Mr. Bones freeze in horror. I followed his gaze and fell right onto my arse again. For there, seeping out of the ground where Mr. Bones’ spade had struck, was a thick, burbling liquid, red as blood.

Mr. Bones’ eyes met mine. “We should really leave now,” he said.

I nodded and so did Mr. Scrabbles.

Only the Captain was completely oblivious to the bleeding ground and the danger we were all in. Instead, he was focussed entirely on his treasure. He stomped his foot, not even noticing the tremors that rippled across the ground and the blood that stuck to his boots.

“Pick that up!”

“But, Captain…”

Captain Scarlet drew his pistol, cocked it and aimed it right at the scrawny chest of Mr. Bones.

“I said, pick that up.”

So all three of us, Mr. Bones, Mr. Scrabbles and my own self, bent down to pick up the doubloons and the jewels and the gemstones and the pearls. For though we were all terrified of the island, we were even more terrified of Captain Scarlet and his legendary foul moods.

The chest was not even half full, when Mr. Scrabbles’ eyes suddenly went wide. He poked Mr. Bones and said, “You were right, boss. We are being watched.”

Mr. Bones looked into the direction indicated and blanched. So did I once I saw what Mr. Bones and Mr. Scrabbles has seen. For there, right behind us, was one of the ever-present vines, poised like a snake ready to strike. But at the tip of this vine was no leaf nor no blossom, no sprout nor no seed pod. It was an eye. A very humanlike eye, blue and bloodshot and watching our every move.

Nor was it alone. For a second vine was snaking its way through the jungle, topped by another eye. This one even blinked.

I screamed. So did Mr. Scrabbles. The Captain aimed his pistol at the eye and fired.

The shot was impossibly loud and the acrid stench of powder tingled in my nose. However, it did no good at all. For the eye was not only still there, it had brought friends. And all of a sudden, dozens of eyes were staring at us from the jungle.

“Run, lads! Run like hell,” Mr. Bones yelled.

Captain Scarlet aimed his pistol at Mr. Bones before remembering that he had just fired his load. Undaunted, he drew his cutlass. And then a vine snaked around his waist from behind, while another grabbed his leg and yet another wrapped itself around his throat.

The Captain screamed and cursed until the vine around his throat cut off his breath. He hacked at the vines with his cutlass, but it was to no avail. More and more vines wrapped themselves around his writhing body, dragging him relentlessly towards the jungle.

“Run,” Mr. Bones cried again.

My hand was full of doubloons and jewels and pearls that I was just about to throw into the chest. I stuffed them into the pocket of my jacket, jumped to my feet and ran, ran as if the devil himself were after me. And in a way, he was.

Behind me, I heard footsteps pounding. Mr. Bones and Mr. Scrabbles, or so I assumed, for I never turned around, never looked back. And above it all, there was that unearthly scream, the scream of the jungle and the island, a scream of pure rage.

Branches and vines still reached for me. But I was too fleet, so they never caught more of me than a few strands of hair or a scrap of my clothes. And still the scream rose in pitch and volume. The ground was heaving and shuddering all around me now and it was increasingly difficult to keep my footing.

I dashed down the hill, towards the beach and the boat and salvation. Mr. Bones was suddenly there beside me and together we pushed the boat into the water, away from the island of horror.

I never saw Mr. Scrabbles again. The jungle must have got him.

Once the water was deep enough, Mr. Bones and my own self jumped into the boat, grabbed the oars and strained our muscles, rowing as hard and as fast as we could, headed for the Bloody Skull that was still anchored off the island. Waves crushed against the hull, rocking our little boat and threatening to tear the oars from our hands. Calm no longer, the sea seemed as furious as the island.

It was only when we’d reached deep water and the waves had settled down from stormy to stiff that we dared to turn around. The sight that greeted us made our blood freeze in our veins.

For the island had risen from the waters. No longer a small hill, it now towered like a mountain above us and our tiny boat and even the Bloody Skull. The jungle that covered its peak, the same jungle through which we had trudged mere minutes ago, was writhing like a living, pulsing thing. More eyes appeared, not just the tiny, human-sized eyes on stalks of vines that we had seen in the jungle, but also a massive pair of eyes that opened in the side of the mountain itself, right where the beach where we had landed had once been. The eyes were gigantic, the colour of a festering wound, very ancient and very angry.

Still the island rose from the waters, higher and ever higher. Below the eyes, two holes appeared. They seemed to expand and dilate at a regular rhythm. Whenever they were at their smallest, the undertow dragged us back towards the island, while whenever they were at their largest, a stiff breeze hit our back, driving our little boat onwards. And still the island screamed.

Mr. Bones yelled at the crew left aboard the Bloody Skull. He yelled orders to set the sails and load the cannons and stand by to raise the anchor as soon as we were aboard. He never took his hands from the oars, but the wind carried his voice over to the ship and soon we could see sailors swarming up the rigging to set the sails.

Behind us, the island rose yet further from the waters, until it eclipsed most of the sky. A grotto appeared where the water met the land, a grotto framed by a row of enormous jagged stalactites. Stalagmites, sharp-edged and pointed and taller than a man, rose from the sea.

Mr. Bones and my own self rowed even harder. The Bloody Skull was forty yards away, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. On board, they were getting the rope ladder ready. It fell over the railing and down the hull. Salvation beckoned.

The sea got rougher again, beating not just our little boat but also the Bloody Skull to and fro. Aligning our boat with the hull of the Skull proved unexpectedly difficult, much more difficult than it should be. Mr. Bones tried to grab the end of the rope ladder, but it slipped from his grasp time and again.

I glanced over my shoulder. Not only had the island completely eclipsed the sky by now, it was also no longer alone. Smaller islands rose from the water, writhing and curling like monstrous snakes. They were covered in suckers the size of a rum barrel. And still the island screamed.

Mr. Bones had finally succeeded in grabbing the rope ladder. He scrambled up the side of the Skull, still yelling orders at the crew. I held on to the rope ladder, both to steady it and so I could climb up as soon as Mr. Bones was aboard.

Tentacles rose from the water all around us. They grabbed for the figurehead and attempted to slither up the sides of the vessel and they reached for the anchor chain as well.

“Raise the anchor,” Mr. Bones yelled, as he clambered over the railing. He looked down at me. “Jake, climb up now.”

I heard the anchor winch screeching, saw the anchor chain pull taunt. But then the whole ship jolted, while the anchor chain ground to a halt.

“It’s stuck,” someone yelled.

My hands were on the rope ladder, ready to haul myself up. But before I could, a tentacle beat against the side of the Skull, knocking her away from me and tearing the rope ladder from my grasp.

My palms burned, but I bit my tongue against the pain and reached for the oars, so I could bring the boat into position alongside the Skull again.

But it was too late. The tentacles had grabbed the Bloody Skull from all sides. Some wrapped themselves around her bow, strangling her figurehead, while others slithered up her anchor chain and reached up to the deck from both sides. Men fell from the rigging or were snatched right from the deck and pulled beneath the churning waves.

The crew fought valiantly. They hacked and stabbed and fired at the tentacles. They even managed to fire one of the starboard-side cannons. But it was to no avail. The monster had them in its grasp now and it would not let go.

With a much bigger prey in reach, the monster had forgotten all about me and my little boat. I was still buffeted to and fro by the waves, but the tentacles no longer reached for me, now that they had the bigger prize, the Bloody Skull itself.

I rowed as hard as I could, away from the island and away from the Skull. I watched as my former ship and its crew were dragged to a watery grave beneath the waves, as the monster gradually lowered itself into the depths of the ocean again, until it was once more naught but an island, a seemingly harmless island.

And then the sea was calm again and me and my little boat were all that was left of the Bloody Skull and her once mighty crew.

***

The Black Lazarus picked me up two days later. I didn’t tell the crew what had happened and blamed the loss of the Skull on those bastards of the Royal Navy instead. It was a story that always worked and no one would have believed the truth anyway.

I was hungry and thirsty and feverish, when the Black Lazarus found me, so they took me back to Tortuga, where I found myself a new ship and a new crew. I still had the jewels and doubloons I’d stuffed into my pocket, so I bought myself clothes and boots, a fine cutlass and a good pistol, a few cups of rum and the company of a lady of light morals.

But I kept one of the doubloons from the lost treasure of the Bloody Skull as a talisman and a reminder of the dangers that lurk beneath the sea.

Here it is, me laddies. Ye may look at it, but not touch.

And that’s the story, the story of the Bloody Skull and the monster that masqueraded as an island. And if it not be true, if Old Mommark’s been telling you a tall tale, then may the Lord strike me dead on the spot, amen.

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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