On Seas Of Blood And Salt
This is what Reb Palache does when he finds a ship crewed by the dead.
He does not know it is crewed by the dead, not at first. He is in his cabin, discoursing with the nameless angel who speaks in the silences of his mind. They are speaking of the Pirkei Avot and debating the words of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, who held that a man who was pleasing to others was pleasing to HaShem, but that a man who was displeasing to others was in turn displeasing to the Lord, when a great shout comes down from the crow’s nest.
“A ship, the lookout,” the lookout says. “Dead ahead and low in the water!”
And these words that rain down are caught and carried by the men on deck, passed along and repeated until one pounds on Palache’s door in his excitement.
It is ill tidings, the angel says. But they are ones that cannot go unheard.
“And if these tidings are pleasing to the men, are they not also pleasing to HaShem?” the rebbe jokes, gently, as he rises from where he sits cross-legged on the floor.
I asked Reb ben Dosa a question as he sat in his study, the angel replied. What of the man who is displeasing to his fellow men because he is pleasing to the Lord? And for that he had no answer.
Reb Palache does not reply; there is no time for him to do so. For again the sailor is pounding on the door, and now he is shouting, “Rebbe, Reb Palache, there is a ship!”
It has been a while since they have taken a ship, Reb Palache knows. The oceans are vast, and even the greatest galleons are small adrift in it, and the men in his pay who work in the treasure-houses of his enemies have fallen silent of late.
It would be good to take a ship. The men would find it pleasing. So says Reb Palache to himself and steps out onto the deck.
The sailor at his door is beside himself with excitement. It is one of the younger men; the older ones would know better. The first growth of his beard has just come in, sparse black hairs curling over a weak chin, and his eyes are wide and blue. Joachim, his name is—Palache remembers him now, a dock rat from Zeebrugge who had demanded at rusty dagger point to be taken aboard. He is earnest, and he is eager, and he is too young to think that death will ever find him.
“Tell me of this ship,” Palache says, and Joachim beams.
“There,” he says, and leads his captain to the bow. “Can you see her?”
Indeed, Palache can, though she is near the limits of vision. It is a merchant vessel he sees, and it seems as if he has not been seen in return. But that is not possible; they are too close, with the rising sun framing them against the brilliant sea. There should be alarms ringing out across the water. There should be cries of defiance and orders given. There should be, above all, action on that lonely ship.
And yet there is nothing as she sails on, serene and unconcerned.
He frowns and reaches for the spyglass. Someone puts it in his hand, and he raises it to his eye. Now the ship comes into sharp focus, and the reason she has not fled is clear.
She is wounded, this one, wounded and barely afloat. One of her masts is cracked. It hangs over the rail, canvas dragging in the water behind it like a ragged seabird’s wing. Only a few sails remain set, and they are rent by wind and storm. Ropes dangle and twist in the wind. Some are unbound, others have snapped and been left to hang. She flies no flag, this mystery ship, flies no nation’s or captain’s colors.
By all rights, Palache thinks, she should be abandoned.
And yet, she is not. For he can see figures on her deck and others in the tatters of her rigging. There are men on board, men who move slowly and patiently about their tasks. Men who, he thinks, might be glad of rescue but have not hailed his ship.
There is still time to turn away, the angel says.
Palache frowns. Behind him, he can hear the men. They are anxious, and they see prey. The creak of leather armor, the rasp of weapons kissing sheaths, the muttered prayers of the men who are wolf-eager to put themselves in harm’s way, they form a palpable cloud of longing. They are hungry for this ship, the men are, and they look to him to give the order to feast.
And yet the slow, silent men give him pause.
“Close with them,” he finally says. “Ready the guns, ready the men. But we make no effort to board, not until I am satisfied.”
“Satisfied of what?” Joachim asks, and the others draw a step or two away from him.
Palache almost chuckles, that they think asking a question would incur wrath, but instead he just answers. “I do not know,” he says, and the men shudder. “But I will,” he continues, and then like birds exploding from dead tree branches, they all move to make ready.
As for Palache, he tucks the spyglass in his belt and walks back toward his cabin. There are preparations to be made there, against he knows not what. Meanwhile, the men swirl around him, sparks in the blaze he has just stoked. The ropes hum as the ship comes about, turning toward the wounded vessel, and the heavy thud of the cannons being made ready is the drumbeat belowdecks that spurs all their labors.
The men will be ready. He hopes he will be as well.
It is an hour before they close with the other ship, an hour Palache puts to good use. Shaddai, the name of HaShem that wards against demons, this he inscribes in nine places along his ship. For each man he lays out a portion of salt and bread, known to drive away spirits, and he spits three times at the base of the wheel to protect it from unwelcome attentions. Only when this is done, when the “91st Psalm” has been duly chanted and the proper benedictions recited, does he ready himself for battle.
The other ship is close now. He has instructed the helmsman to bring them up alongside the vessel, so that he might see what sort of prey she might be and if it is right and proper to take her.
It also lets him see the crew and their quality. Something about those steady, slow men disturbs him, and the angel’s warning has him on edge. Better to observe first, he thinks, than to commit to acts unrighteous or foolish.
And then a shout goes up for him as they close, and the men want him at the rail, among them. The other ship is perhaps a dozen yards off to starboard, and the gap is closing. Already the men are readying ropes and grappling hooks to tie her fast. Already men are climbing into the rigging with muskets, prepared to make the enemy’s deck a killing floor.
Already, they are here, and there can be no turning back.
He stares across the water. The ship is old. He can see that now. The wood of her hull is a weathered grey, and deep gouges up and down her length show where she had been scarred by sea and shore and battle. Thick crusts of barnacles and mussels foul her beam like the marks of a pox on a diseased man’s back. Pale crabs scuttle here and there, claws snapping. There are no gun ports, or if there are, they have been sealed shut by the relentless growths along her flanks.
Bits of her rail have been torn away, by gunfire or by storm. The broken mainmast shows no jagged edges; time and weather have conspired to smooth the break.
This is not a ship that has seen port, or the care of man, for a very long time. She is defenseless, and she is old, and she would not be worth manning with a prize crew and bringing back into port. The next storm she sees, surely, will sink her.
But it is not the ship that causes him to pause in giving the order to board. It is the men who sail her.
They are men, in form if not in spirit. Perhaps a dozen of them roam the deck, working slowly, laboriously at their tasks. Others cling to the tatters of the rigging. One stands at the wheel, staring straight ahead. None notice the ship alongside them; none turn their heads to see. Their footsteps drag, their hands are slow and clumsy. As he watches, a spar falls and smashes onto the deck. The men there do not notice and do not call out. Instead, they step over it, those who do not simply stumble.
“What are those things?” a man mutters at Palache’s side. For it is easy to see now how their garments are rent and their flesh is dry and shrunken. Their visages are like skulls, skin pulled tight to the bone, and their eyes show no light or life.
And then a wave comes up and sweeps over the ship. It is not a wave of water, rather one of stench. It smells of rotted meat and sickness and dead things left too long in the sun, of floating bodies washed up on beaches and old blood on a surgeon’s table. It smells of death, and it smells of fear, and it chokes the air from Palache’s men’s lungs. Some call out. Some faint, overwhelmed. Most stumble back, coughing and puking.
“Ready the guns,” Palache says. “We need no part of this one. Its cargo is death.”
Belowdecks, the guns on their runners slam into place. The smell of burning black powder threads its way into the corruption, a tickle of the nostrils to remind the men of who they are.
“Sink her,” Palache says, and the guns roar.
One after another, the shots slam into the rotted, aged hull of the ship. Splinters fly, shell fragments explode. Smoke blooms in deadly flowers trailing down to the waterline.
“Again,” Palache orders, and again his cannon vomit fire and iron. Again, the dead men’s ship shudders like a wounded thing.
And then the smoke clears, and she is whole. Fresh scars line her, yes, but even as Palache watches they fade to the dull grey of age, another forgotten line in the ship’s ancient story.
And on the deck, heads turn. He has been seen, Palache knows. Seen, and judged, and found wanting. The empty, dead eyes are not empty now. They burn with hate, and they burn with hunger.
Slowly, the withered hands on the ship’s wheel turn, and she responds, groaning.
“She’s coming for us!” Joachim shouts, and it is true. The prey has become the hunter, and it is closing.
“Hard starboard! All speed! And keep firing! Sweep the decks!” Palache is in motion even as he gives the orders.
Behind him, the men aim their guns at the grim figures on the deck of the other ship. Canvas flaps open and belly with wind. Small thunderclaps dot the deck as Palache’s ship turns, turns away and runs. And from the other ship, the creak and moan of ancient wood under duress and the flat wet smack of lead hitting flesh.
Just like their ship, the men do not fall. Indeed, it seems as if they move about their tasks with renewed vigor.
A grappling hook sails out, somehow, from the dead men’s vessel. It snags the railing and pulls taut, but then Palache is there, and he cuts the rope. It falls away into the sea, even as others clang and bounce off the sides of his ship.
“More sail!” he bellows, and the men leap to respond.
But he was incautious, and he let them get too close, and where the wind hits the stench of death, it dies.
“They’re not falling,” Joachim cries, standing at Palache’s elbow. He turns and gives the sailor his knife.
“Cut the lines,” Palache says. “Do not let them close.” And then he is running back to his cabin, to the hidden chest he keeps therein.
It is carved of mahogany and bound in brass, and it sits cunningly hidden against one of the walls. No man on board has seen it opened; few know it even exists. Inside Palache keeps rare and dangerous things: the finger bone of a man possessed by demons, a vial of tears cried by one of the Lilim, a stone from the wreckage of the first Temple.
Buried among them are two small terra cotta jugs, unmarked and tightly corked. It is these that Palache takes, for within them dwells fire.
The other ship is close now, too close. No more ropes fly out from her deck. Rather, it is the splintered wreck of her figurehead that bores ahead, a serpent hacked in half long ago and edged like daggers. Gunfire still blasts across her decks, smacking into wood and flesh, but it does no good.
“Salt purifies and protects. Fire cleanses,” he says, and launches the first jug. It spins through the air and crashes to the deck of the other ship. There it shatters, spilling pale white liquid in a vast arc.
One of the dead men, the first to turn, sees this. He raises one bony hand to point at the rebbe, and he shrieks. The others take it up, a chorus of the damned that drowns out the guns and the wind and the waves. It is the voice of the cold wind that blows at funerals, the early frost that freezes the harvest, and it drops Joachim to his knees. One man falls from the rigging, screaming. He hits the deck with a wet cracking sound, bone and meat splitting open in a single instant.
Palache turns, sees that he can do nothing for the man. On the deck, Joachim whimpers. He has dropped the second jug, and it is rolling away. The rebbe seizes it and throws. It follows the arc of its brother, up and over the gap between ships before plunging down.
The men watch it. The dead men watch it. The world seems frozen in that instant, all save Palache, who draws his pistol and fires.
And the world explodes into flame.
The screaming stops, replaced by a single howl of surprise. Flames erupt all along the deck of the dead ship. They climb the rope of the rigging and leap into the sails. They dance from bow to stern, and they run down to the waterline. The dead men stagger about. Some are caught in the conflagration and burn themselves, others are merely trapped. Palache’s ship, Palache’s men—these are forgotten.
“Now!” he commands, and his men drop their blades and their guns. It is time to flee. They will leave the burning hulk to its fate, let it and whatever cargo it held sink beneath the waves.
A hot wind blows from the dead men’s ship. It fills the sails, filling them fat, and Palache’s ship leaps forward. As the fiery wreck recedes in the distance, the true wind picks up. The ship flies over the waves, and the flames are left far behind.
In an hour they are barely visible; in two they are gone. The men celebrate their escape, and Palache does a divination that suggests their luck will be changing soon. There is cheering, and there is drinking, and there is joy, the joy of men who know they are lucky to be alive.
It is six days later.
Palache is on deck as the sun sets, having said the evening prayers. There are fewer men with him than there were a week ago. Two days prior, they took a merchant ship out of Santander, and he had manned it with a prize crew. If all went well, they would see each other again in Haarlem in a month’s time. Until then, they would cruise and seek targets of opportunity, and take what the sea gave them.
A whistle from above catches his attention. It is an early warning of bad weather on the horizon, one he has heard a thousand times before. The men do not need him to give them orders. They know their work, and they set to it with a will.
Instead, he takes out his spyglass and observes. The wall of cloud the lookout spotted is plainly visible, dark grey and shot through with orange lighting. There is no chance to run before this storm; it is coming too fast. Better, he thinks, to reef the sails and ride it out than be caught unprepared and driven by the wind. Some of the younger crew have not seen rough weather, and it will be good for them to learn. Already, the wind is picking up, and the spray of the waves is crashing onto the deck.
Smiling, he raises his spyglass. And then he sees her.
From the storm she emerges, still dragging her tattered canvas across the waves. She burns, oh, how she burns! From stem to stern she is alight with flame. Even the sodden canvas of her shattered sail burns, sending steam hissing up into a vast cloud.
She is impossible. She is burning.
She is closing on them and closing fast.
The men see it too, now. Some stop to point, others to pray. One lunges for the rail to throw himself overboard and is only restrained at the last. The tide of panic rises.
“Men!” Palache bellows.
They stop. They turn. They look at him. He must be careful now. If he fails to convince them, they are all lost. There will be but one more encounter with this dead ship, one they must win. And panicked men win no battles.
And he calms them. He soothes them. He tells them to see to the ship, that he will deal with their pursuer. The older men trust him, the younger ones follow their lead. They return to their labors, double-quick now. As for Palache, he takes something from his cabin, and he looks across the waters. The burning ship is drawing near, closing the gap with vengeful speed. He can feel its heat, and he looks up.
He climbs the rigging, as agile as the men half his age. There is no other way. He cannot allow the dead ship to ram his; the flames cannot be permitted to leap from sail to sail. So he climbs, and he says invocations to Shaddai under his breath, and he does not look down.
And when he reaches the top, he leaps.
For a second, he thinks he has misjudged, that he has jumped too soon. The burning sails look terribly far away, and he knows he will not reach them. Then, suddenly, he is lifted and borne up, and he slams into a nest of smoldering ropes with thunderous force.
You? he asks the angel silently.
Salt purifies and protects, the angel replies. Fire cleanses. Go down and see what you find.
There are already dead men coming towards him, their bodies wreathed in flame. They burn and are not consumed, unholy in their endurance, and their knives and swords blaze, too. The first to reach him thrusts with a broken dagger. Palache twists, the blade rushing past, then shoves the dead man back and away. It loses its grip on the rigging and falls, one ankle snagged in the ropes holding it dangling above the inferno of the deck.
Two more surge past it, attacking in unison. Palache parries one and kicks the other in the face. It does not fall. Instead, it rears back for another swing, and when it does so, he drops down upon it. It cannot get its sword up in time and Palache crashes into it, fingers scrabbling for the ropes. Its sword goes crashing down as it tries to rid itself of its unwelcome passenger, and then its partner swings, and Palache lets go, and the one dead man hacks the head from the shoulders of the other. It pauses for a moment, perhaps understanding what it has done, and Palache seizes it by the leg. It turns toward him, but it is too late, he has already pulled it away from the ropes, and it is falling.
So it goes until Palache reaches the deck wreathed in fire. Through the flames, he can see the outline of his ship so very close. A half-dozen flames have jumped the gap; men are pouring buckets of seawater over them. Time, he knows, is running out.
More dead men come at him. He swings, he parries, he dodges, and he dances. There is no winning any of these fights, trapped between the walking dead and the conflagration that will not die. There is only escaping to take another step, another breath, and hope he can find what he seeks before too late.
Then, abruptly, there it is: the stairs leading belowdecks. A corpse rises up in front of him; he smashes it in the forehead with the pommel of his sword, and it goes over backwards, arms spinning. Palache leaps after it, down into the dark.
When he lands, the breath is squeezed out of him. Not by the impact, though the dry crunch of deadstick bones underneath his feet tells him he has landed on his late adversary. No, this is the place where that cold wind of death and rot originated, and this is where it dwells.
The flames have not reached here, but dim light from their work above somehow shines through. And what it illuminates is a horror beyond comprehension. There are men here, or pieces of them, and children and women as well. All are bound. All have been cut by the butcher’s knife, flayed and vivisected and brutally hacked. This one’s legs are gone; that one is missing her tongue and eyes. Still others are laid open, the skin lovingly pinned back so that Palache can see where this organ or that one has been harvested as a delicacy.
And all are still alive.
They do not speak, they cannot speak. They have been here too long, have been subjected to too much pain. Some manage wordless howls. Others merely whimper. But all plead for release.
It is all he can do not to cry out, to demand an explanation for how such a thing can exist. Instead, he takes his sword and slashes the throat of the nearest victim, a man whose face has been cut away until his visage is naught but bone.
The blood gushes. Palache stands back to observe his work. And the chained man, the man hoisted high on a metal hook through the flesh of his back, a man whose eyes rest in a ruin of dried blood and broken bone, he raises his one remaining hand in supplication.
As above, so below. As the deathless sailors cannot die, neither can their prey.
This is the heart of things, the angel says. Where it begins and ends.
There is a rumbling crash, and Palache is thrown from his feet. He can hear wood splinter and flames crackle, and men shouting in alarm and rage. There is no more time. He must find a way to kill the deathless, before his men are taken by them.
Before his men wind up down here.
He stands and spits three times, as is proper when seeking to banish evil from a place. Blood sloshes around his ankles. The undying around him moan.
The ship shudders again. He can hear gunfire now and the clash of steel. There are shouts of alarm and a smell of thick smoke. Bits of burning canvas drift down through the hatch, illuminating the hellish scene before him.
Fire cleanses, he thinks. But this place has not been cleansed. It is unholy. It resists.
It must be made ready to burn.
With that, he sheathes his sword. Footsteps clatter on the stairs, and he sees dead men coming for him. There is no room to maneuver here, no way to defeat them.
The first one sets foot in the rolling foulness. It turns, sword ready, and favors Palache with a grin. It is the one who first met his eyes, the one who first knew him.
Palache does not draw his sword. Instead, he reaches into the pouch at his belt, digs deep, and brings out both hands filled with gleaming white.
Salt purifies. Salt protects.
The dead man shrieks and charges.
Palache opens his hands and flings the salt in all directions. It strikes the bound victims, and they sag against their bonds. One grain, one single grain is enough. It frees them.
Where the salt touches the dead men, they burn. The flames on deck snake down below to embrace them, stripping them of their unnatural vitality and leaving them burned husks. The last collapses at Palache’s feet, sword arm outstretched, the pooled blood hissing and steaming around its blackened corpse.
And where the salt, the pure and blessed salt, touches the ship itself, there the ship burns, too. The unclean thing that dwelt here, that animated muscle and sinew, beam and spar, beyond death, is gone, driven out. There is a final gust of the foul-smelling wind, and then Reb Palache is alone in the hull of a burning ship with the peaceful dead all around him. The aged wood burns quickly, he sees, the years catching up to it in an instant. Surely, he thinks, his men will be pulling away. He has taught them that much, that they are to save the ship and themselves.
He prays they remember.
With a sharp crack, a section of the hull gives way. Dark water pours in. The only question is, will the ship burn to the waterline before it sinks. Reb Palache does not know. Another plank gives way and then another. To stay here is certain death. The stairs leading up from this stinking den of torment are gone, devoured by flame. More planks are breaking as the ship comes apart.
Choose, the angel says.
He does, and he leaps, and then all goes black.
It is Joachim who pulls him from the water, who lifts him into the jolly boat from the waves.
“Thank you,” Palache says, as he is brought on board and a blanket is wrapped around him. There is a canteen of water for him and a skin of wine, and bread as well.
“Are they gone?” Joachim asks after a suitably respectful wait. “The ship, I mean.”
Palache nods. “We will not be troubled by them again.” He pauses, and waits for the angel to say something, but his invisible companion is silent. Perhaps he agrees. Perhaps this knowledge is not for Palache, not yet.
“Good,” Joachim says and pauses.
The other men in the boat bend to their oars. The steady chop of the water is soothing. The storm is gone, having crumbled as the ship it shepherded burned. The waves are small and gentle.
In the distance, Palache’s ship waits, and so do the rest of his men. All is well. He closes his eyes then, trusting no further adventure will befall them over the last hundred yards of open water, and drifts toward sleep.
And as he does so, he hears Joachim say, softly, “I think when we put in at Zeebruggen again, I’ll be going home.”
About the Author
Richard Dansky is 20+ year veteran of the video game industry, where he has written for games like The Division, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and numerous others. He’s published seven novels and one short fiction collection, and was a contributor to White Wolf Game Studios’ World of Darkness games. He lives in North Carolina with a cat named Goblin, whom he swears was named that when he got her.
About the Narrator
Elie Hirschman is a self-described “former aspiring voice actor” who has worked with Darker Projects and Dream Realm Productions and is also involved in Cool Fool Productions, turning bad audio scripts into intentionally bad comedy gold. He’s currently still active in all EA podcasts (including Cast of Wonders) and also appearing semi-regularly in the Nosleep Podcast. He doodles constantly but doesn’t draw enough and moved from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere against his will and better judgment (but has never been in the Southern Hemisphere).
Elie was born in New York City and raised just outside of it. He started down the voiceover path in 2004, with formal voiceover and marketing training by Creative Voice Development Group. His professional voice work ranges from children’s educational material to real estate advice website audio, with a scientific article and a guided tour of a Polish salt mine thrown in for good measure. In his free time, Elie enjoys cartooning, listening to old-time radio drama, and referring to himself in the third person. By this time next year, he will also have mastered speaking in future perfect tense.