FICTION – NEW VOICE (April 2018)

Deep Black Sea by Brian Manton

Yvgeny sat in the belly of the boat with the blindfolded old man. He held the table with one slabstone hand, and braced himself against the galley wall to keep in sync with the motion of the room. The blindfolded man calmly swayed in perfect time with the sound of the ravenous waves.

Mikhail bent over the sink, staring at the contents of his stomach. A sponge sloshed in the centre of the mess, giving Mikhail the sense that he looked down on the beaten old trawler that contained him, churning in the infuriated sea. The thought made him gag again but there was nothing left to bring up. He flat-footed his way back to the table, and sat across from Yvgeny and the old man.

“I am sorry, Yvgeny. This does not project the right atmosphere for escorting a man to his final punishment.”

“The sea does with us what it will.”

“No matter. He breathes even easier than you. He understands what this is, yet he does not beg or plead?”

“He understands.”

Mikhail leaned over the table, scrutinising the old man. He wore a dark grey-brown suit of some antiquated style which he must have clung to since his youth. He had a pointed grey goatee, and wiry white eyebrows poked from the top of the blindfold. His head was bowed but he sat upright, not leaning against the back of the seat.

“Does he sleep?” asked Mikhail.

“He is awake.”

“If he goes so quietly, then what is the point of all these theatrics? Why suffer this stinking tub? Why not dump him right here and turn back to land?”

“There are ways of doing things, Mikhail, that are older than you or I… or him. Sometimes, that a thing is old and endures is reason enough to trust in it.”

The room gave a jolt. A vibration rang out in wood and metal that suggested the entire shape of the vessel to their ears. Mikhail felt his stomach churn. The old man raised his bound hands to hold the table edge and brace against the more determined rocking of the boat. Mikhail stared at the old man’s fingers. They were turgid and damp looking with an unhealthy pallor, different to the pink of his narrow face. His fingertips were fleshy and uneven with no nails at all–showing signs they may have been uncarefully removed some long years before.

“He looks to have endured interesting times. Should I trust in him if he starts to wail and offer treasures to spare him?”

“We must do what we must do. I have brought horrors upon many men, but this does not make them lesser. Respect is due. The ends of things unite us all, my friend.”

“That head of yours, Yvgeny, dreams up too much meaning about what we do.”

“I have not dreamt in some years.”

Mikhail broke from Yvgeny’s gaze.

“Be thankful, brother.”

***

The heavy cabin door swung open, spilling in the crashing sounds of the upper deck. One of the fishermen stood in the doorway, filling it with his brickwork frame. He wore a hooded raincoat, dark algae green and slick with salt water. His sea-beaten old face was shadowed, but his deep-set eyes caught light from somewhere in the room and shone out to find them.

“We’ve dropped anchor.”

None of the fishermen had spoken a word since Mikhail had boarded the trawler. This man spoke with a voice made of shipwrecks being ground together in the depths of the sea.

Yvgeny stood up and looked to Mikhail who still suffered from the rocking.

“Bring him up.”

***

A skin of water stretched and rolled across the surface of the deck, pitted by heavy rain. Sodden piles of netting lay against the outer cabin walls, and looked like the cragged hide of some amphibious beast. Mikhail gripped the taffrail with one hand. His other arm was locked around the old man’s, holding him fast. The rain beat hard against the hood of the fish-stinking overcoat he’d been given by the fishermen, increasing the volume of the already roaring scene. He could just about hear Yvgeny shout from behind him.

“Move forward. To the prow.”

The work-lights on the deck allowed Mikhail to see well enough through the streaming fists of rain, but the world that surrounded the trawler was black. The black didn’t feel like a nothingness to Mikhail, but a distinctly angry something pressing in against this intruding bauble of insolent light.

He edged forward, sliding his grip along the handrail. The old man, still blindfolded, somehow managed to keep his sway in time with the boat, just as he had done in the galley. He stood rod-straight, dress shoes seemingly fused to the deck until he took his next sure-footed step. Mikhail found that he was using the old man for support. They had given their captive no overcoat, and his suit clung to him, sagged and waterlogged, revealing a wilted figure that belied his sturdiness.

The rocking worsened as they reached the front of the boat. Yvgeny handed Mikhail a knife and gestured towards the old man’s bound hands. Mikhail wanted to ask why they could not just throw him over, but he knew his words would not carry. 

He moved to cut the rope, needing to use both of his own hands, as the old man’s were slick with wet. Spray from the waves beat Mikhail from the front and near-horizontal rain attacked him from behind. He felt his footing give, but Yvgeny gripped his shoulder with one shovel hand and kept him from falling. 

Mikhail looked and saw that he had cut the rope when he slipped, but had also sliced the old man’s bulbous palm. The blood looked black in the harsh light.

The old man turned to face them, still managing to keep his balance. He raised both hands and removed the blindfold. It was getting harder to see, the whole world draining to monochrome, but to Mikhail it looked as though the old man’s eyes, too, were wholly black. The old man began to speak, his spiky voice somehow cutting through all the noise, his lips parting just enough to show a neat row of small square grey teeth. Mikhail didn’t recognise the language of what he decided must be some sort of prayer. He felt Yvgeny plant another heavy hand on his other shoulder.

“I’m fine, Yvgeny. Let us get this finished.”

“I am sorry, my friend. It will be finished soon.”

Yvgeny’s grip tightened. The old man’s catechism climbed, his words seeming to stack atop each other like the steps of a staircase. Mikhail felt his body become inflexible and then snap straight, every muscle taut. His arms pressed into his sides. His hands uncurled and dropped the knife.

The trawler lay still now, even and flat. It was the world that tipped forward and back, forward and back. The rain still fell, the waves still crashed and sprayed, but the sound all dropped away, as if carried on a wind from some distant place. Mikhail’s senses now focused on the old man, his chanting, and his black searching eyes.

The old man reached out and pushed two swollen fingers into Mikhail’s mouth, pressing down on his tongue with nailless fingertips. It was the cut hand, and Mikhail tasted a thick metallic curtain of blood sink between his front teeth. The man’s chanting rose and fell with the swaying of the black angry world around them.

The old man withdrew his fingers from Mikhail’s mouth. His chanting ceased and the sounds of the world came crashing back, only to subside again as the rain eased and the sea calmed. Mikhail wanted to turn to Yvgeny, to ask him what all this meant, but he could not move and could not speak. The old man closed his eyes, and behind him, from the now still waters, rose a colossal writhing black column. It twisted and bent toward them with slow muscular movements. Mikhail closed his eyes and felt something cold and heavy wrap around his entire soul.

***

Yvgeny watched the black tentacle hang there, suspending Mikhail’s body a foot above the deck. The old man reached inside his sodden blazer and produced a small pouch. He undid its drawstrings and lifted it to Mikhail’s nose. Mikhail twitched and inhaled sharply. He looked at the old man, then to Yvgeny, then down at the black mass that enveloped him. Mikhail’s jaw jerked as though he were trying to speak. Yvgeny raised a spade-like hand and cupped Mikhail’s cheek kindly.

“You may feel, Mikhail, that we have worked together for a long time, but it has not been so long. Yet I have come to trust you, my friend, and I trust you are strong enough for what must pass. The families we work for, that you have worked for all your life, are but young. The old bosses are returning and I must return to them. My debt is old indeed.”

“I wish for you to join me, Mikhail, but first you must be judged.”

In a pulsing movement, the tentacle lifted Mikhail over the railing. Yvgeny watched his friend scream without sound as he was drawn beneath the surface of the waves.

He waited and stared at the dark water until long after the ripples from Mikhail’s wake had dissipated.

Time seemed to hang still, like the water, barely wavering.

***

The black column re-emerged from the sea–without Mikhail. Yvgeny looked up to see four more dark pillars rise around the trawler, as if it was now held by the black oily hand of the sea itself.

Yvgeny turned to the old man, looking for permission to keep waiting, but the old man simply buttoned his blazer and clasped his hands by his chest, waiting for Yvgeny to accept what he already knew.

Yvgeny exhaled, breathing out the last of his hope, then walked across the deck to a stack of crates and netting, and retrieved the knife he had handed to Mikhail. As he moved back to the bow, the nearest column bent down and rested itself across the front of the trawler. Yvgeny handed the knife to the old man, who pressed the blade slowly into the hulking mass that lay before them. The tentacle tensed and flexed as he sawed. He cut a large wedge from it and passed it to Yvgeny, who accepted its weight into upturned hands.

The old man resumed his chanting. The tentacle rose again and followed its brothers back into the depths.

***

Yvgeny left the old man, and carried the meat back inside the boat. The fishermen moved from his path and turned from his gaze as he returned to the galley. He laid the meat directly on the table. The flesh itself was black as the outer skin, but shone with rumours of greens and purples in the light. Thick and watery oils leaked from it.

Opening a drawer by the sink with his blackened hands, Yvgeny picked out a fork and knife. He sat down and cut into the black steak, eating it piece by piece, slowly remembering the taste. When he had finished, he lay his head on the wet tabletop and slept, and swam through dreams that churned in the deep black sea. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Manton is a writer and short film maker from the Viking-settled city of Limerick in Ireland. His writing has appeared in Opposum Magazine, Caught by the River and Chester University’s Flash magazine. He has a background in printing and design, has taught film and creative writing and currently works in higher education supporting literacy skills. 

www.brianmanton.com