idol survivor | challenge #2 | ~2460 words
As was true for many a sailor in his time, Pieter Bakker could not swim.
He had gone to sea, not for love, but for the wages it afforded him. Surefooted, hale, and hardy, Pieter knew every knot and rigging aboveboard and every ripple in the hull below. He could go up a rope as fast as down, and he had scrubbed and tarred the deck so many times that he had the splinters in his knees to prove it.
There was no finer hand to be found, the Captain often said, and Pieter would swell with pride upon hearing it.
Yet, for all of his unassailable skill, Pieter lived in mortal terror of drowning. Many of his shipmates feared the same. They all held fast to the ropes and riggings in a storm, and they kept their foolish antics below deck, where none might slip or stumble overboard and fall to his watery doom.
Those long weeks or months on the ocean could be maddening, to be sure. Were it not for his lack of schooling, Pieter might have been a clerk or found some other safe employment far from the treachery of the open sea. But he was neither false nor fool, and there were no fine dreams for a man such as he.
The jeweled waters of distant shores—the strange new fruits, the warm kisses of raven-haired women—those were the riches he hoped to find at the end of a crossing journey, if end there be.
Pieter had sailed for three years with the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, a number few were likely to ever survive to see. The far reaches drew him in again and again, to the port cities whose people wore bright clothes and dazzling smiles, and the local trade routes where each island was its own paradise.
He grieved over the return to the North each time, for he loved those warmer climes and their cultures, and with his mother gone two bleak years hence, nothing remained in Rotterdam for him any longer.
In Batavia, however, there was a lovely maiden called 'Melati,' and she had stolen Pieter's heart.
How he longed to be with her, all through the long voyage South and around the bottom of Africa, and how he despaired of ever again rejoining her as the ship sailed farther and farther from her island home!
The sailors on night watch knew him well. Pieter would stand on the deck gazing up at the sky, spending too many hours lost and moonsick, as many a man might be.
"You must try to sleep now, Pieter," his friend Jaap would say, "lest you make yourself ill."
"Soon," Pieter would sigh, and yet might remain until the morning watch was nigh.
"I should like to marry her," Pieter said one night, as he and his friends threw bones below decks and Willem cursed Jaap's impossible luck.
"And bring her home to Rotterdam?" Jaap asked. "Oh, how the fishwives would talk!"
"Nay," Pieter said. "I would remain in Batavia, and begin a new life there."
"In what sort of profession?" Willem asked. "What have ye not told us?"
"In whatever comes," Pieter said. He had decided that he was strong enough for any work that might come along, and he was young enough to learn another tongue and another trade.
"Ye'd best speak to the Captain, then." Willem picked up the bones and tucked them away in his pocket. "It might be he'd grant ye leave, but it's the Company that'll do the deciding."
Willem's words proved true. "Next year, perhaps, after your contract is finished," the Captain said.
Pieter was crestfallen, but resolute. He would ask for Melati's hand when next he saw her.
Eighteen days later, the Hollander reached the Cape of Good Hope. A new foresail was mounted, and the crew re-supplied the ship with provisions before departing to Batavia. A fortnight later, Melati was finally in Pieter's arms.
They spent the brightest of days and the most perfumed of nights together, bestowing kisses and tender gazes upon one another. Melati spoke little Dutch, and Pieter little Malay, but both had improved since Pieter's last journey. No words were needed to ignite the giddy thrill Pieter felt when Melati laughed, nor to make him lose himself in the sparkling beauty of her eyes.
A mere ten days later, the time had come for the Hollander to begin its return journey to the Cape of Good Hope, and then on to the Netherlands. Pieter arranged for a translator to accompany him to a special meal with Melati's father, during which he asked for permission to marry her.
He was beside himself with gratitude when her father reluctantly agreed.
"Thank you, kind sir," Pieter said. He promised to love Melati above himself , and to give her a good and honorable life.
Melati was overjoyed by the news, and laughed and cried in turns as she accompanied Pieter to the pier.
"Oh, dearest," he told her, "I wish that I might stay now, but I shall not return for another year. Then we may wed at last."
Melati brushed his cheek with her hand, and smiled and nodded through her tears.
Pieter kissed her one last time, and walked down the dock until he reached the gangplank. He turned back to look, and Melati was talking to another young woman who seemed almost as excited as she. The two of them smiled and waved at him, and he smiled back, full of longing for all that he would not have for another year yet.
He climbed a few steps up the gangplank and collided with the Captain, who had stopped to peer out into the crowd.
"Beg pardon, Captain," Pieter said.
The Captain looked at him stonily. "Pieter," he finally replied, and continued up the gangplank without another word.
The ship was three days out of Batavia when Pieter was awakened by the Captain and two crewman, who pulled him roughly from his berth.
"Search his clothing and his bed," the Captain said.
"Sir?" Pieter said.
"Would this be it, then?" the red-bearded crewman asked, holding up something he'd pulled from under Pieter's blankets.
"It would indeed." The Captain took the item and held it up next to the lantern. "My own pocket watch, handed down to me by my very own grandfather." He put the watch in his pocket abruptly. "Arrest this man for thievery, Lukas!"
"But sir, I didn't…I would never…" Pieter said, as the men hauled him up through the ship to the top deck.
"This is how thieves are punished," the Captain said. "Let this be a lesson to ye all!"
The men tied Pieter to a rope hanging from the main-yard and affixed a leaden weight to his legs. They then hoisted him up high over the water, where he swayed in the wind from the sea. "I don't understand," he shouted, "I'm innocent! What treachery is this?"
"Drop!" the Captain screamed.
The rope slackened, and Pieter plummeted down and down into the water. He crashed mightily through the surface, the shock of it forcing the air from his lungs, and he could not forestall his gasp of surprise as the rope hauled him deeper into the darkness below the ship's keel.
How he thrashed then, hands over his nose and mouth to stop himself giving in to the fit of coughing that fought to overtake him and warred with the panic pounding through him. Oh, but it was cold and dark beneath the ship, and how the sea water burned his nose and lungs! Lieve God, Pieter prayed, help me!
He tried to pull himself along the rope toward the surface, but was bound too tightly to move. Then he felt a sharp tug on the rope, and his head struck the keel in a blinding surge of pain as he was pulled into excruciating blackness.
His own coughing roused him, and Pieter found himself hanging upside down in the air above the dreaded sea once more. He gasped and choked, struggling for air and trying to rid his lungs of the water he'd taken in. He looked to the men on deck behind him in desperation. Jaap and Willem appeared stricken, but neither lifted a hand to defend him.
The Captain eyed him with cold rage. "Drop!" he shouted again.
"No, I beg you, no!" Pieter howled, but still the sea rushed toward him. Tears wrung themselves from his eyes as he drew in a gulp of air and braced himself for the coming blow.
The crushing impact forced the air from his lungs yet again, but he did not let the surprise undo him. Hold, hold, he thought, determined to fight the need to breathe for as long as he could.
His head throbbed and stung from the brine as he plunged farther into the sea, and then he was being pulled headlong under the keel once more. He braced his hands behind his head as the black depths swallowed him, his lungs already burning with the need for air. Lieve God, lieve God, he prayed again, hoping only that he might yet survive.
A sharp pull on the rope drove Pieter into the keel once more, crushing his hands against the barnacles that tore through his skin as he fought to protect his head from worse punishment. The pain was terrible, a fiery agony that threatened to trick him into dropping his hands, but he held on tight even as the urge to breathe grew stronger and stronger and his body grew weaker.
Suddenly, the pulling seemed to slow and slow. Terror gripped Pieter's heart as his lungs howled for relief. I cannot last! he thought. It is too far! Will no one save me?
He gritted his teeth and tried desperately not to give in. Blackness mounted behind his eyes, and bright sparks flashed as he felt his strength leaving him. No! his soul cried out, as he suddenly gasped and drew water in. No, please God, no!
Pieter strained and struggled against the pain, against the darkness, as it crowded in to devour him with cold, sharp teeth...
At last, the men hauled him from the sea. They untied him from the rope and laid him on the deck, spent and sodden.
Pieter was too tired to lift his head, and none of the men would look at him. It was as if they were all too ashamed or angered by what they believed him to have done.
Pieter coughed and gasped and shivered, still unable to catch his breath. The men left to tend to the sails and riggings. Willem returned after a time to lay a blanket over him, but it did little to relieve the cold. Even the heat of the sun could not warm the ice inside Pieter's bones.
Pieter awoke some time later, still on the deck and suffering a torturous headache in additional to the brutal weariness of his every limb. His wounds were untended, perhaps due to the measure of his disgrace. With great effort, he roused himself and slowly crawled below deck for a sip or two of gin and the meager comfort of his bed.
He felt a bit better by morning, and took his shift on the deck with the other men. But the weakness still seemed to plague him. Ropes slipped through his hands, and the boom and capstans would not obey him. The other sailors paid him no heed, but Pieter did not care to appear to be a laggard. He went below deck to hide and rest a little longer.
Days later, he returned and tried his hand on deck again. He no longer felt quite so weak, and yet it seemed that he'd lost every bit of skill he'd ever had. Never had he so lacked for competence, nor been so damnably incapable of doing the simplest task! The other sailors continued to punish him with their avoidance, and he glared at them, frustrated by his own uselessness and angrier than ever at their betrayal.
A storm was brewing, and the men rushed about to prepare the sails for the coming wind. Suddenly weary of his inability to help, he returned to his berth to rest until his infirmity passed.
The bite of winter was in the air when Pieter woke again. He must have become ill somehow, to have slept so long—weeks by his reckoning, and he remembered none of it. Had they not reached land yet? Surely they must be nearing the Cape of Good Hope by now.
A few of the other men appeared ill as well. Several lay motionless in their berths, and when Pieter went on deck, he noticed how badly the ship had fallen into disrepair.
"What has happened?" he asked Jaap. "Why are we still at sea?"
Jaap finally looked at him, then, as if he were surprised to see him. "I cannot say. We seemed to be inside that storm forever after you were gone, and so many of the crew were lost to the wind and sea."
"What of the men below deck?" Pieter asked.
"Many of us that remain cannot seem to make the ship work any longer. We have been adrift here forever, unable to craft even the simplest repairs."
"Then I am not the only one of us so afflicted," Pieter sighed.
"At times, I fear we may never return home again," Jaap said sadly.
The two of them stood and watched the sea for a time.
Pieter woke just before three bells, wondering how he'd come to be in bed again. A few other men were there, talking and going about their duties as they'd done before.
But when Pieter went up to the top deck, the sails were loose and torn, and the ship was in ruins all around him.
"This is your doing!" Captain Van der Decken shouted from behind him. "Had ye not made me so angry, we would not have been cursed when ye died."
"Died?" Pieter said.
"From the drowning," the Captain said.
"You drowned me?" Pieter cried. "All for a watch I never took, however it came to be in my bed?"
"'Twas never about the watch, lad. Ye smiled at my girl afore we left port, and that was enough."
"What girl? I saw only my own sweetheart, and now you have taken me from her forever!"
"I have taken what was yours as ye tried to take what was mine," the Captain said.
Pieter was grief-stricken. "And now we have nothing, any of us, but an eternity adrift on this cold sea."
"Perhaps," the Captain said. "Perhaps."
But then he pointed toward the storm to the East and smiled with a steely hint of vengeance. "Though yon ship may yet come to our rescue soon…"
This prompt, which refers to a horrible and often lethal punishment, inspired me to create a fictionalized account of the crime said to have resulted in the ghost ship known as Der Fliegende Hollander, i.e., "The Flying Dutchman."
If you liked this story, please vote for it along with the entries of ALL my other Asaga teammates (bsgsix, eeyore_grrl, gunwithoutmusic, impoetry, lawchicky819, megatronix, minikin25, and wolfden) here!