Down the roiling cataracts they had plunged, motes of human life suspended above the torrent by an implausible amalgam of planks, rope, tar and canvas.
Certainly, when the survivors had been released from the shaking fist of the rapids, their lives intact, their cargo secure and the sun still apparently pursuing its allotted trajectory across the burning sky, John had regarded their vessel and the fact that half the crew were still in it with as much disbelief as he could muster in his exhausted state.
Like all the men on that terrible journey, he had built up a store of obligations to divine authority as the great river tried to consume their insolent coracle. The promises of sacrifice and the commitments to abnegation were as mixed and diverse as the crew, who were a rag-tag motley brew of nations. John had begun by praying to his own god, the King of Kings, but when the storm had shown no sign of abating he tried praying to the Morningstar instead. This seemed only to make the storm worse, so John directed his devotion back to the King-of-Kings, replete with apologies for his faithlessness and stern vows to undertake penance if He would allow John to survive the voyage. When this failed to produce any results, John thought ‘to hell with it’ and prayed to any god who would listen, he prayed to the Law-Giver and the Grand-Architect, he prayed to the Unending-Above and the All-Father, he prayed to the Maker of All Things From Fire and the Annihilation in Creation, he even prayed to Mother Earth, though this last god was known even by fools to be the fanciful notion of heathenish savages.
Had his shipmates known the sheer scope of John’s infidelity, they would have seen in him the cause of the fever which subsequently crippled their crew and tipped him into the water with the same matter-of-fact directness with which they would plug a leaking hole. As it was, the sick were packed below-decks to either sweat it out or die and John spent a week strapped to a stretcher with a fever of the blood, robbed of his common senses, terrified out of his wits by the notion that gods pursued him across a sky which boiled and seethed like a tanner’s vat, looking to collect their debts.
John had just reached the point where he believed himself torn to shreds, stored in a mixture of clay pots, brass chests, phials of Venetian glass, leather purses and tandoors and separated to the four corners of creation, when at last he began to recover.
As soon as he had the presence of mind to recognize his surroundings and the strength to move, he hauled himself above-decks – for the stench beneath was like a physical object in its unapologetic tangibility – and when the last of the bodies had been cast into the water, the captain gave leave to all the men to thank their gods properly. For this purpose the oven, packed in earth as a safeguard against conflagrations, was put to service as an altar, and throughout the day, the seamen took it in turns to wander to the galley and burn their sacrifices. A more detailed itinerary of celestial arse-kissing would clearly be right and proper once they made landfall but under present circumstances, it was felt a modest nod in the direction of heaven would have to suffice. Unwilling to part with any of his rations, and in any case concerned that if he offered a sacrifice to one, he would have to offer a sacrifice to all, John resolved to postpone his observances until the ship struck land, he had struck a tavern and a whore had struck his purse. If he should die before he had a chance to make things right, he reasoned he could talk his way out of his obligations when he reached heaven, after all, he felt the occasion was more suited to toasts and songs than solemn devotions. He had weathered a storm, beaten the bloody flux and he’d played fast and loose with the gods, they had thrown their worst at him and he had survived. When he felt the first zephyrs of the high coastal winds swooping up the delta he reassured himself that there wasn’t a thing in the world that could hurt him now.
The sea-monster attacked just after the second watch, great tentacles exploded out of the water and whipped on to the deck like giant knouts, crashing through the rigging as though it were gossamer and seizing men with hideous suckers before pulling them beneath. The chaos this generated was exquisite and total but John could not restrain himself from making the perverse observation that the only noise to be heard was the crash of rubbery limbs against the deck and the screaming of men. It was strange that the monster had no roar to supplement its attack and then he remembered thinking it was odd that he was having this thought instead of doing something more productive like praying or shitting his troos. This train of thought led him directly to both those activities and just as he prayed to every single god he knew the name of, so it seemed that he shat out every single thing he had ever eaten. The only consolation he could imagine as the creature divested the boat of its living occupants was that in the combination of fever and sea-monsters, he had discovered the laxative ne plus ultra and that if he survived he could retell this tale with a lavatorial punchline, a display of élan which would surely secure him a few nights drinking and fucking on the cheap.
For how long the leviathan toyed with their vessel, John could not say, for the beast seemed to be accompanied by its own corona of tempestuous gloom such that there was no reckoning ‘tween day and night. When the murderous creature finally left off it was clear that there were now fewer men on board than gods he had prayed to, and that the hull had been perforated, the rigging removed and the rudder shattered. Their only hope lay in baling out the hold, conducting what repairs they could, uttering what prayers they might and hoping for a favourable current to convey them to land. John found this fitful itinerary of recovery more wearing on the nerves than the attack itself, for now there existed the possibility of hope, however slim – requiring him to dissipate his nervousness with a series of wearisome jokes and bon mots.
An examination of the hold revealed that his was the only cargo load which had survived the trip unspoiled and while he found the idea of thinking directly about his possibilities of survival to be a rather daunting prospect, the fantasy of selling all of his cargo being only indirectly linked to his own mortality proved more enjoyable and so he focused his attention on this possibility. He had heard numerous tales of the appalling savages to be found lining the shores of the Eastern Sea: cannibals, people who fashioned their clothes from human remains, people with two heads and four arms – and every time he had reached a comfortable point in his fantasies, that is to say - rich with several wives after the eastern custom and a score of ships captained by his subordinates, speculation about these dreadful tales would intrude upon and spoil his fragile flight of fancy.
The joy he experienced when the crew sighted land was, therefore, alloyed with the apprehension that they might be devoured upon landing. The coastline gave little indication as to the temperament of any people who might live there, there were no neat and tidy settlements, but then nor were there the ragged effigies of the crucified and dismembered. If they still had supplies and a working vessel they would have tacked up the coast to spy a while, but with their rudder and sails destroyed and with a constant battle being fought beneath decks to pump the ship and keep her afloat, they had no choice where they landed. And so it was that they ran aground where a small fresh water creek fed into the sea.
After drinking a little water and passing out, John was stirred awake by one of his crew-mates, a Musselman, wearing the first smile he had seen since the rapids. He related that they had run aground in territory belonging to Suleiman al Attar also known somewhat propitiously as Suleiman the Merciful.
John had heard the names of a number of infidel satraps and they tended towards the alarming. Men such as Aasif bin Q’weira Cleansing Flame of the Infidels and Sarfaraz al Shuqqah Hammer of the Franks formed the extent of John’s understanding of eastern lords. After his miraculous survival thus far, running aground on the coast belonging to a man renowned for his mercy made John feel like fortune’s pet. So, after confirming the conspicuous absence of anything remotely savage about these people, John took to whooping and resolved that as soon as he had sold his cargo and perhaps after he had got drunk and laid a few times and maybe after he had formed plans for what to do with the remainder of his capital, he would make good on his debts and schedule a tour of the temples.
The silk-clad sundry notables who’d found them sprawled like so much shattered driftwood along the beach, insisted they accept ‘what humble and insubstantial hospitality is in our power to offer’ and pretty soon they were sat at a low wide table, on which a great confusion of pots, trays, tagines, dishes, salvers and bowls butted up against one another like dwellings in the medina, each heaped with delicious aromatic food made all the more tasty by the diet of hard-tack which had preceded it for some three months.
‘Praise to Allah the Merciful and wise for he has delivered you from the belly of the sea that you may have your bellies filled here’ said Suleiman, jabbing the air with a drumstick for emphasis. ‘Praise be to Allah’ echoed the Mahometan contingent. ‘Praise be to God’ said the ship’s captain who had spent much of the journey fingering the heavy jet beads of his rosary. He gave a curteous bow of his head in the direction of their host who in turn nodded to the captain, the understanding being clear that they were all People of The Book so they’d be polite and avoid discussing controversial figures such as The Prophet and The Christ. Eyes turned expectantly towards the crew’s sole surviving Jew, a Dutchman of an ordinarily loquacious disposition who had been struck dumb by the sheer quantity of food. ‘Ah yes, my apologies, the sight of all this food quite robbed me of my tongue and my manners’ he offered, ‘Praise be to the One God who created the terrible trial of the sea, that we might better appreciate the noble hospitality of gentlemen such as our good host’. Now it was a fact known to all at this table that some of the crew were not People of The Book and would therefore have to offer praise to God privately, for the mere mention of other faiths was a conversation stopper trusted and true. And so John saw a way that he could include his idolatrous shipmates in this spiritual colloquy and began to hold forth about his extraordinary good luck amidst the apparent turmoil of the many. As John waxed large on how he was the luckiest man present, several at the table began to look uneasy at his clear disregard for the eye of fate and a number engaged in superstitious practices such as casting salt over the shoulder or making the sign of the crux.
Looking back on what was about to happen, John reflected that a golden tongue was worth little when attached to a leaden eye. If only he had heeded the increasingly horrified looks on faces about the table. He should have stuck to his anecdote about the ultimate laxative. Instead, he proceeded to inform a stunned table that he had prayed to all the gods he could think of and even some he wasn’t sure were real but had half heard of in sailor’s taverns. The worst of it was that he hardly got to taste any of the food set before him. No that wasn’t the worst of it, the worst of it was that Suleiman the Merciful had decreed his share of the cargo was Haram and should be burned immediately. No, in-fact even that wasn’t the worst of it, the worst of it was that both the crew and their hosts had reacted as one in their revulsion of his confession and the man who had hammered the bolt of his irons home was none other than the ship’s captain who had insisted he performed the task: ‘for how else can I demonstrate my sorrow that I have brought this viper into your home?’
John had the whole night to consider this sudden reversal in his fortunes, a night which seemed to pass all too swiftly given that the executioner’s scimitar awaited him in the morning. As the first rays of dawn penetrated his cell from the solitary and tiny, high window, John put his hands together, he knelt before a crisp rectangle of light on the floor and he began to pray.
Matthew M E Smith is a legendary dinner-host and raconteur. His story 'The Giant And The Woman From The North' is available on Spoken Ink. Paul Rafferty is a singer with the band Hot Club de Paris, and a designer of several Moshi Moshi releases, including his own.