Categories
Poems

There Needs to be a Word for Laughing at Horror

IMG_8276

There needs to be a word for laughing at horror
When something’s so awful that you laugh in surprise
And you say, “I know it’s not funny…”
But there’s still a laughing look in your eyes.
Like when you hear of the man who was a quadriplegic for life
Falling down in the kitchen to land on a knife.
He would scream out in pain, but he can’t move his lips!
He’d get off the knife, but he can’t move his hips!
Still he’s not quite dead yet, the very poor dear—
Though he may wish he were, as he’s overtaken with fear—
For in the thin walls of his house, a bad electrical wire
Has found inflammable ground and started a fire!
And as the flames rise up, our victim’s consumed
By smoke and fire that blaze him to his doom.
Whoever it was that said Nature’s so sweet
Has never been chaff, has been only wheat.
But for a man like me who is often the chaff
When cruel tragedy happens, I have to weep as I laugh!
And I know it’s not funny to laugh at these things,
When the blades of life are cutting one’s wings,
And the depths of horror are so profound that you cry
Yet an inapt smile appears near the tear from your eye!
So what can you call it when you are laughing at horror?
It’s not quite “schadenfreude,” and not quite “sadistic;”
It’s certainly not “tasteless,” because that’s too simplistic.
I really believe that we must make a word
For a feeling that each of us has sometimes incurred.
I have no proposals, nor have I quaint dictum,
So, like all of you, I’ll just try to not be a victim.

Categories
Stories

The Sicario

The Sicario is the genesis story of a criminal prodigy.  The story traces the early and unlawful career of Santiago Ramírez, a budding, villainous genius, who lives life among the border cartels.  The story describes murder, mayhem, and family.  It portends that Santiago will one day be a powerful and Machiavellian cartel boss.

fullsizeoutput_a48Santiago Ramírez was born an American in San Diego. Immediately after his birth certificate was issued, his mother, Maria Louisa “Lulu” Ramírez, returned with him to her home country of Mexico, and Santiago became a dual citizen shortly thereafter.

Señora Ramírez was a mother in a cartel family. Her brother, David, was arrested for trafficking arms in Culiacán. Her uncle, Jesse, was arrested for trafficking narcotics, also in Culiacán. The family’s lives were remarkable for their sensational violence, police encounters, and criminal associations. When the authorities released Jesse two months after his arrest, he was soon shot to death outside a grocery store. Three hundred and fifty 7.62 mm bullet casings were found at the scene of the crime. The authorities described Jesse Ramírez’ murder as an open case, and his assailants were never found. Lulu’s sister, Yolanda, was sanctioned under the Kingpin Act for her alleged involvement in the cartel’s financial activities. Señora Ramírez’ mother, María Luisa Ochoa, had run a brothel before she married her husband, Señor Carlos Ramírez. Now she was rumored to control no fewer than twenty and to live in the shadows with Carlos, a man wanted in Mexico, Colombia, and the United States.

When Santiago was four, his family was murdered by a rival gang, the Jalisco Alphas, in an attack so successful and decisive that it secured control of the western seaboard and primacy in cocaine traffic for the JAs. The Ramírez Cartel was a paramilitary operation, and over the course of the following year, the lieutenants and captains in the cartel were either hunted down or integrated into the Jalisco Alpha organization.

The only Ramírez survivor of the strikes was Santiago himself, who was with his nanny when the hit happened. The nanny, Julia Ortega, had used her wits and saved their lives. She took Santiago’s passport, her own, and a sackful of pesos, then slipped away. She fled to Mazatlán with the four year old, then she took the ferry from Mazatlán to La Paz in Baja Sur. As Julia traveled, she fretted about what to do with Santiago, feeling that, while the rival cartel had no interest in her, they would certainly be interested in Santiago, and that his very presence put her life at hazard. She had neither love nor sympathy for the Ramírez family, who had unduly punished her for mild offenses and treated her tyrannically, and, though she had no care for the baby either, she was human enough that she was repelled by the idea of leaving Santiago alone and exposed. Still Julia she knew of no one who could take Santiago, and now she felt stuck in La Paz.

Julia found herself in the unenviable position of being an unemployed woman with the care of a child who was not hers in a city in which she knew no one, and that child was the only thing attracting a group of animalistic gang members who hunted and killed.

After a year of much anxiety, during which Julia read about the slow and steady decimation of the Ramírez gang, Julia decided what she would do.

Julia went north, to Mexicali and Calexico, border towns between California and Mexico. There she crossed the border with Santiago.

“Remember this crossing, Santiago,” she said to him. “If you wish to return, you’ll have to make it by yourself tomorrow. At least I am giving you this chance.”

The boy was five years old, and he remembered the vermillion and navy blue of a swallow, whose tail parted scissorlike behind it as it dipped and soared over a wet ditch. It was his first memory.

They returned to Mexico that night. The next day, they crossed into America again, and Julia left him there. She crossed back into Mexico alone, and she vanished from his life forever. The action she took that day haunted her conscience for the rest of her life, and she spoke of it to no one. She returned to Culiacán and went to work for her father who owned a small restaurant that served menudos and mariscos, and there she stayed until she died.

Santiago was found by a woman who turned him over to the authorities. The authorities held him for awhile, but no one claimed the boy, and ultimately he was remanded to the care of a foster home in San Diego.

His life there was miserable and unhappy, in part because of his own actions, for Santiago found himself drawn to crime. He stole and he lied, and he was caught at both of them, and punished, so that he became an angry child, tyrannical like his dead parents, and subject to overwhelming and passionate outbursts of violence and anger.

When Santiago was eight, his ferocity was noticed by a man with an eye for criminal genius. The man’s name was Julio Rodríguez, and he was an ex-convict and a man of foresight. He saw his own days of criminal activity to be dead and gone, so he set himself up as a recruiter and talent scout for a cartel in Tijuana. He saw in Santiago’s eyes and actions a boy who could be groomed for crime.

Julio Rodríguez invited the eight year old back to a restaurant, Don Pedro’s, where he spent his time. There were two other youth there, brothers, and a number of adults as well. The men would sit outside Don Pedro’s drinking beer, smoking, and laughing. They talked of old times, past crimes, and breathed regular life into aging vendettas. They had ties to the Camino Verde Cartel which operated out of Tijuana.

Julio introduced Santiago to Aarón and Alex Molinary, two brothers aged fourteen and fifteen. The Molinary brothers wore jeans and skate shoes. Alex wore a gold necklace with a golden bullet as its pendant. Aarón had a golden tooth.

“I’ve got a new friend for you,” said Julio. “Take care of him.”

“This kid?” asked Alex, looking skeptically at the eight year old.

“Yeah,” said Santiago.

The men at Don Pedro’s were sipping from their beers and smoking.

“I’m not a baby-sitter,” said Alex.

Santiago cursed at the older boy, and he told him where to go.

Alex’s face darkened.

The men laughed.

Then Alex, looking at them, laughed too.

“Avispón,” Alex said, which means hornet in English.

Aarón chuckled.

For the next two years, Santiago, or Avispón as they called him, distinguished himself through his brutality and aggressive flair.

Between the ages of eight and ten, he fought no less than once a week. He began skateboarding, drinking, and smoking cigarettes and marijuana. His eyes grew lean and sharp. He stole money and food from his foster home. He stole clothes from local shops. He grew into a boy more wicked and mature than his years suggested. He did anything and everything asked of him by Julio Rodríguez, Aarón, and Alex, and the men at the restaurant soon began to treat him like a ferocious pet, one whose startling temper was to be chuckled at, but with amused respect.

During this time, Julio felt realized that he had discovered a child prodigy so far as crime was concerned. Accordingly, he informed a captain in Calle Verde Cartel. Nothing happened for months. Then one day an order came down that the leadership of the Calle Verde Cartel wished for a test of Santiago’s mettle.

A foolish fresa—which translates directly to strawberry, but which refers to a rich, soft kid—wanted to be perceived as hard, and he’d gotten himself involved in the Camino Verde Cartel. He had money but no brains, no street smarts, and he simply wasn’t good at doing things right. His name was Sergio Rosa. The cartel, realizing that he was both expendable and willing, selected Sergio for the murder of a beautiful woman, Alexis Hernández. Alexis was the wife of a cartel member, Israel Hernández, who had been arrested and who was agreeing to a plea bargain with the feds. Israel’s talking threatened the leaders of the Camino Verde Cartel and their narcotics logistics, so the cartel needed to send a warning. That warning would be the murder of Alexis Hernández, the imprisoned man’s wife. Any more talking, the cartel would say, and Israel’s children would be next.

Thus Sergio Rosa was dispatched one night with orders to murder Alexis Hernández in her penthouse home in San Diego. Sergio was given a gun and instructions to throw it into the Pacific Ocean once the murder was completed.

The cartel had recognized in this upcoming murder an opportunity. They would send Santiago Ramírez into the penthouse apartment after the murder was committed. If that fresa Sergio bungled the murder, then Santiago could report back, and the Camino Verde Cartel would send in a professional to finish the job. If Sergio had done the job right, Santiago would have a first hand opportunity to see murder up close, and he could be desensitized to it from a young age. Julio, thinking through the cartel’s plan, reasoned that the risks were small. If Santiago was found on the scene, he was only ten years old. Nothing would go onto his permanent record, and any time in juvenile detention would be short.

On the night of the murder, it was a warm, clear night in August. Sergio Rosa arrived at Alexis Hernández’ apartment building with trembling hands and a look of frightened determination on his face. The gun was concealed in a shoulder holster. He carried a hot pizza in a cardboard box, as if he were a pizza delivery boy, and the guard let him up. Sergio punched the elevator for the top floor. The elevator was located against a vertical glass window that let Sergio look out over the city of San Diego as the elevator rose. The city spread out before him, like a carpet of lights and shadowy buildings until those lights reached the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and the sea gave way to darkness. The elevator came to a smooth stop on the fourteenth floor.

Sergio Rosa exited the elevator, and he walked to the only room on the floor. He knocked, and when Alexis Hernández opened the door, he pushed his way in. He dropped the pizza on the ground. She screamed. He pulled the pistol from his shoulder holster, but it caught on his jacket. The woman attacked him, screaming. Sergio got the pistol unstuck, falling back against the closed door. He shot her once, in the top of the shoulder. Alexis screamed again, and she fell back. He shot her twice more, once in the chest, once in the belly. She lay on the floor, moaning. Sergio fled from the room, not bothering to shut the door. When he was in the elevator, he looked up, and he realized that he was looking at a camera. He put his head into his jacket, and he began to cry. He was still crying when he reached the lobby floor, but Sergio looked the other way as he walked out, and he did not respond to the guard’s goodbye. Sergio had parked four blocks away, and he ran the entire distance, increasingly cognizant and frightened by how many cameras there were along the sidewalk. He reached his car, and he realized that he had parked it beneath yet another video surveillance camera. He dented the car behind him as he backed out of the parallel parking, then he sped away.

Fifteen minutes later, Julio Rodríguez dropped Santiago Ramírez off at the penthouse apartment. The ten year old was dressed nicely, and his hair had just been cut. Santiago smiled at the guard, and he told him that he was there to see his Aunt Alexis.

The guard gave the boy a warm smile, and, with kind eyes, he pointed the boy to the elevator and told him to punch fourteen.

“I think she’s got some pizza waiting up there for you,” the guard said.

“Pepperoni and sausage’s my favorite,” replied Santiago, and he walked to the elevator.

The elevator doors opened, and Santiago got in them. They closed behind him.

“Cute kid,” said the guard.

When Santiago reached the fourteenth floor, he found the door ajar. He went in to the apartment. There was Alexis Hernández, still alive on the floor. She was crawling toward the couch, and a trail of blood lay behind her.

When the boy came in, she turned her head. Her eyes were wide in terror. She thought the man had come back to finish the job. But her expression changed to relief when she saw Santiago. He was a boy, nicely dressed. In her pain, she did not wonder what he was doing there.

“Help me!” she said. “Help me get my phone.”

“Where is it?” asked Santiago.

“Near the couch.”

Santiago walked past her to the couch where her phone lay. He did not touch it. He merely looked at it.

“Bring it to me,” she said.

Santiago looked up.

It was then that her face changed to horror again. She suddenly wondered what the boy was doing in her apartment. And the boy’s face seemed evil.

But Alexis couldn’t give up hope, and she couldn’t completely trust her ominous premonition.

“Bring me the phone,” she said.

But the boy did not move. He’d been told to check on the apartment, and to see that Sergio had not left any evidence behind. He’d been told that, if the girl was still alive for any reason, to call Julio, and Julio would call someone in the Calle Verde Cartel.

Santiago looked around the apartment. The lights were on. The place was strewn with the woman’s dirty clothes. It was a fancy, wealthy apartment. The tables were made of glass and gold. The couch was white leather. The kitchen had marble countertops.

Santiago wondered if anyone could see into the apartment with its lights on. He went around the room, and he turned off all the lights. Alexis watched in horror, then she started slowly dragging herself towards her phone again.

Santiago came back from the kitchen where he’d been turning off the lights. He had a strong, sharp kitchen knife in his hand, and he used it to stab Alexis in the back. And from that wound she died.

Santiago looked around the room, and he looked at his hands. They had blood on them. He washed his hands calmly in the sink with soap and water, and he looked at himself in the mirror. He liked what he saw. Then the boy left the apartment, and he shut the door softly behind him until he heard it click. On the way down the elevator, he put his hands in his pockets, and he never looked up once toward the camera. He smiled and waved at the door guard as he left. On the street, Julio was waiting for him in the car, its engine idling.

Julio gave the boy a searching look as he got into the car, but he only reminded the boy to buckle his seat belt. Then Julio eased the car away from the curb, and he drove out, going no faster than the speed limit, back to Don Pedro’s restaurant.

“What’d you find?”

“She was still alive,” Santiago said evenly.

Julio’s face whipped around. His face was a mask of wrath and anger. “I told you to call me—”

“I finished her off,” said the boy coolly.

Julio’s jaw dropped. His features looked amazed. “You did what?”

“I knifed her.”

“Tell me everything,” Julio said.

The boy told him everything.

The next day, Sergio Rosa was arrested for murder, and, though the police searched for the ten year old boy who was caught on camera and seen by the door guard, they never found him. Sergio Rosa said that the boy must have knifed the girl, but the police did not believe him. Sergio’d been caught on camera putting a pistol back into his shoulder holster, and there were bullets in the dead girl’s body. He was going to be up for life. Men who were rumored to be associated with the Calle Verde Cartel paid Sergio Rosa’s bail. Two weeks later, four campers found a corpse in a shallow grave in the Mojave Desert. It took forensics specialists a month to determine that the body was that of Sergio Rosa, and his parents were unable to provide a definitive identification.

Santiago Ramírez, when he next appeared at Don Pedro’s, was no longer treated as a ferocious pet. He was treated with a mixture of fear and respect. Aarón and Alex deferred to him. On his eleventh birthday, the men at the restaurant poured drinks for the boy and lit his cigarettes.

Three weeks after his eleventh birthday, Julio Rodríguez asked Santiago to step into Don Pedro’s restaurant because there was someone who wished to see him.

Santiago went inside. The bricks were cool, and the fans were turning slowly.

Sitting in a booth was a woman in a plain black gown which covered her entire body except for her neck and head. She had a curious expression on her face and penetrating brown eyes.

Julio gestured for Santiago to sit at the table with her. Santiago sat across from her, but he said nothing.

The woman waved Julio away. Julio left. Santiago was all alone with the lady.

“Don’t you even say Good afternoon?” said the woman.

“I do to those I wish it to,” replied the boy.

The woman said nothing for a few moments. The boy felt that he was being tested or appraised. The woman’s face remained stony.

“You’re an orphan,” she said.

“Is it a question?”

“No,” she replied coldly. “But I can offer you a family.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Alma Madero Díaz,” said the woman curling up her lip in a way that was at once haughty, proud, and beautiful. Her face seemed to sharpen in its angularity. She brushed black hair off her forehead, and Santiago saw rings of gold upon her fingers.

“I don’t know the name. And I have a home.”

“You have a foster home. You hate it.”

The boy said nothing.

“Many folk would kill to live with me, if only for the power that I possess,” the woman said softly. “You don’t seem to be so much as intrigued.”

“I’ve killed for nothing,” the boy replied, his voice just as soft.

The woman smiled then, a soft, enigmatical smile, as if his response had amused her, and as if he had just passed his appraisal. “You will come with me,” she said. “My family controls the Camino Verde Cartel. Or, rather, I control the Camino Verde Cartel. I have no children. I cannot. And I have never before wished to adopt. But I like the look of you, my dear boy. You can call me Mother.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then I’ll cut your throat myself.”

Santiago Ramírez smiled. Alma Madero Díaz smiled back at him.

Moments later, Santiago left Don Pedro’s restaurant with Alma Madero Díaz, and he never returned. The nearest that he ever got to Don Pedro’s again was to pass it in the streets. He never even said goodbye to Julio Rodríguez. A black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows was waiting behind Don Pedro’s, and Alma Madero Díaz got into the backseat with Santiago. A man shut the door for them, then got into the passenger seat. He was armed with an assault rifle, and he wore Kevlar beneath his clothes. The Escalade was cool and quiet, and there was a driver behind a tinted partition. They drove out of San Diego, to a hacienda in the desert. The hacienda had a white fence surrounding the property, taller than head height, topped with glass and razor wire. They entered the hacienda grounds, and they drove down a dirt drive that was longer than a quarter mile. The hacienda itself was a dwelling that was low and white, Spanish colonial style, with a broad porch on which five men with assault rifles, CB radios, and sunglasses patrolled. None of them smiled at Santiago, and he smiled at none of them. The hacienda opened up into a brick courtyard with a fountain, hanging plants, and desert plants. There were full sized statues. Maids wore uniforms and moved softly about.

The woman, Santiago’s new mother, walked with him in these first few moments, then she left him in the courtyard. A while later, a maid came out with a lunch of enchiladas verdes on a white porcelain plate, carried on a silver salver. Santiago ate the lunch alone on a tile table in the hacienda courtyard, sitting on a black steel chair. The sound of the water pouring from the fountain into its pool was the only sound that could be heard. The air felt cool and pleasant in the courtyard, despite the dry heat without.

He spent the day exploring the grounds.

That night, a maid showed him to his room, and he saw his new mother for the second time.

She came to tuck him in. She sat on the edge of his bed, and she pulled the white cotton sheets beneath his chin.

“I have high hopes for you, mi avispón,” she said softly to him. The room had an arching brick ceiling and twelve inch wooden beams spanning it. The windows had no glass, only wicker shutters. There was nothing in the room except for the king sized wooden bed, which sat on a frame of oak stained black, the mattress and its white sheets, and a small end table on which sat a white porcelain pitcher filled with water, along with a nearby glass.

His new mother kissed his forehead. She brushed his hair with her hand. She smiled at him. “One day you’ll control the cartel I’ve fought so hard to establish and maintain. But before then, you’ll need to learn the business of drugs and death.”

“I’ve killed one person already,” he said.

“I know, my darling,” she smiled at him. “That’s why you’re here. I’ve had my eye on you awhile. But one murder is just a beginning. We’ll make a real killer of you yet.”

She kissed him, and she left the room, turning the light off behind her and closing the door.

Categories
Stories

Love, Revenge, and Death on the Mongolian Grasslands

This story concerns a tribe of Asiatic people, the Xiongnu, who are attacked by their dynastic neighbors, the Zhou.  The Xiongnu lived in present day Mongolia, and the Zhou lived in present day China.  Both civilizations existed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.  The story also treats the desperate love between a young husband and wife, and the lengths that the husband is willing to go to to get revenge on his enemies.

IMG_4693

The Xiongnu people lived in the country that we currently call Mongolia. Mongolia is basically sandwiched between Russia and China, south of Russia, north of China. It’s a large country known for its broad flat plains, big blue skies, continental weather, nomads, and dexterous horsemen. People then lived in round buildings made of felt. They got the felt from the herds of sheep that they kept. Twice a year, they’d shear the sheep, roll all the wool smoothly out on the ground, pound it flat with sticks, then apply moisture and heat. It’s a process called felting, and it’s still practiced today. The homes of these Xiongnu people, which were called a yurt or a ger, had a circular ring at the top of each home, which held the roof up. These rings were connected by spindles, so that the form looked like what you’d see if laid a spinning wheel or a bicycle wheel on its side. This hub (that is, the ring at the yurt’s top) is called a compression ring. It’s the critical piece that allows the builder to put equal pressure on all the ribs, and which of course allows for a great deal more weight than otherwise to be put upon the roof. The yurts could be picked up, collapsed, and moved very easily, a necessary trait because the Xiongnu people who lived in them were nomads.

In those days, the populations of diverse species of animals were much higher. Accordingly, it was not uncommon to see snow leopards, Amur falcons, Caspian tigers (now extinct), wisent, and the Altai argali. A wisent is a type of European buffalo, and an argali is a brown-furred, white-faced sheep with heavy, spiraling horns.

You’d see the wisent bull rolling in the grass, its hooves up in the air, dust clouds rolling off the ground. You’d see the Amur falcon swooping over the river, rushing down mountain passes, high stone on either side. You’d see the world burnished at dawn and inked at dusk, painted every spring with pink, purple, and white wildflowers along the miles of green grass that faded into the mountains.

Every night, the stars glowed more brightly than you have ever seen. The summer sky was blue and rich. There was peace and quiet without engines or electronics. The Xiongnu people were known amongst other tribes for their excellent horsemanship and stylish fashion. They wore brightly colored clothes, of designs and styles not seen today, except in pictures and dreams. Winter clothes were made from the hides of Bactrian camels and summer clothes from light silk. They wore pointed caps and long robes, curving decorations along the shoulders, broad belts, and leather shoes. They had carpets of dazzling blues and reds and golds. They had fires, stories, and freedom. Now that world is gone, and it will never return.

At this time, there was also a group of people (we now call them the Zhou Dynasty) who settled in what is today China. The Zhou were at the forefront of global civilization’s bronze-making, and they were slavers, and, although they had a demarcated territory of their own, their armies were known for plundering, rape, and pillage. Their king was called King Li of Zhou, and he was infamous for his decree that he could issue a sentence of death upon anyone at any time.

For the most part, the affairs of the Zhou and the affairs of the Xiongnu did not affect one another, and the average citizens lived their days out in peace.

In a great valley surrounded by hills and mountains, there was a young Xiongnu couple. The woman’s name was Mazus Reptans and her husband’s name was Albie Sibirica. They herded sheep.

It was summer and the grass was green. The sheep’s wool was getting long, but it was not yet ready to be shorn, and there was little for a sheep herder to do during the day. Albie would sit among the stones on the hillside and would watch his sheep eat grass. There were no wolves or eagles nearby, which were the two main predators of sheep, other than bandits. Albie was near to a running stream, and every day when the sun was highest in the sky, and the day felt warmest, Albie would strip naked and bathe himself in the stream. During the days, he would think of going home at night to his wife, where there was sheep and goat meat cooked over the fire, and he could hold her in his arms at night.

Butterflies flew; crickets leapt in the grass; in the distance wild mountain goats sprang upon the rocks on the hillside. Falcons circled in the air, and, far out along the horizon, a herd of skylit musk deer grazed along what seemed to be the edge of the world, where the green grass met the blue sky.

The attack came with little warning.

Albie was naked in the stream when he heard rocks falling along the mountainside. He looked toward the mountain, but he saw nothing.

Then, a moment later, a horde of Zhou warriors stormed over the cliff face. The effect was as sudden as if they’d appeared out of thin air. One moment the warriors were hiding on the far side of the mountain, the next they were galloping down the near side.

Albie’ heart seemed to freeze a moment in the cold water, then he rushed out of the water, pulling on his pants and snatching his shirt. He ran back to his people.

From a distance, the Xiongnu camp looked peaceful and cozy. Their yurts were grayish white. There was a slow burning fire in the camp, its smoke winding peacefully to the sky. Horses stood staked to the ground, quietly eating grass. Women and children moved about their site. The women were mending fabrics and preparing foods.

Albie called to them, and one of them, hearing, looked up, and she dropped the work in her hands. Albie saw her hands fly to her chest as she screamed.

Behind Albie, the Zhou warriors quickly closed the distance. They drew nearer and nearer.

Their leader wore a purple and blue striped robe, and he carried a bow, with a quiver of arrows across his shoulder, and a hatchet in his belt. He rode a chestnut colored horse that was foaming at the mouth and whose eyes were wide. His face was Asiatic with a long black mustache whose ends hung off the corners of his mouth. His ears were pierced and hung with rings. Behind him thundered twenty more men, all on horseback, all with murderous intent.

By the time that Albie reached the village, the men were on horseback, and the women were carrying the children to such safety as they might. Albie ducked into his yurt, and he found there his wife, Mazus. He gripped her wrist. He pulled her out of the yurt. Together they ran to their horse. Albie pulled its stake from the ground, and he sprung astride it, Mazus leaping up behind him.

The Zhou hordes were upon them, however, and the Xiongnu people were not warriors, but shepherds. Coupled with the advantage of surprise, the raid was a rout. The Zhou men cut the heads off men and women and children alike, set fire to the yurts, and carried off the youngest girls. The Xiongnu horses were screaming, as were the remaining men and women.

Together Albie and Mazus fled their home. Albie turned the horse to the direction that the musk deer had been seen along the horizon, and he urged the horse to its fastest gallop. Mazus looked back. Three men pursued them. The men wore swords and carried bows and arrows, and they lofted the arrows over and around Albie and Mazus. Beyond the pursuers, Mazus could see their encampment burning. She saw a Zhou man thrust his sword through a person on the ground. She closed her eyes, and she looked ahead.

A moment later, one of the Zhou arrows caught the horse in the flank, and the horse fell. They were thrown from the horse. Albie and Mazus fell hard to the ground, and Mazus lay groaning. The men’s horses pounded to a stop beside them, and a man pulled taut the string of his bow and looked ready to let fly an arrow into Albie’ heart. But the man next to him uttered a sharp command, and the archer held himself in check.

The three men beat Albie, then they carried him and Mazus back to the site of the Xiongnu village. There were only four people left alive: Albie, Mazus, and two young women. The dead lay strewn about. The Xiongnu yurts burned.

Two Zhou men tied Albie’ hands with rope, and they hung a cangue around his neck. A cangue is like the stocks or the pillory without the base. A cangue is comprised of two sets of boards with a hole in the middle through which the prisoner’s head is put through, and then the boards are locked together. They are heavy, twenty pounds or more. But the most dangerous aspect of the cangue is that its shape makes it a barrier to feeding oneself. Prisoners can starve while wearing a cangue, because the prisoner can’t reach around the boards to feed himself. The boards of the cangue impede a person’s ability to put food in his own mouth.

The men then staked the cangue into the ground.

Albie looked at them. They were slim, dangerous men. They wore swords at sashes around their waists. They spoke in loud, rough tones. They laughed like horses. They spoke in the caustic, mordant Zhou tongue. Albie looked to the distance. The land otherwise seemed peaceful and calm. He felt a great fear for Mazus.

The man in the purple and blue striped robe looked at Albie. “If any come after, you will serve as the warning of the fearsome nature of the Zhou. Live or die, that cangue will mark you as a Zhou victim.”

Albie looked at his wife. Mazus was a short woman, five feet tall, with dark hair and dark eyes and skin the color of walnuts. She had teeth that Albie loved. The front teeth projected slightly like a rabbit’s, and he found them adorable. She looked into his eyes, and her eyes were wide with fear.

“I love you,” said Albie.

“I love you too,” Mazus said.

The Zhou raiders then pressed fabric into the women’s mouths, and tied the fabric into place to prevent the women from talking or screaming. Mazus and the two girls were thrown across the backs of three Xiongnu horses, and they were tied into place. Albie called to his wife, saying again that he loved her. He heard no reply. The Zhou rounded up the remaining Xiongnu horses and nearly a hundred sheep. The man in the blue and purple robe looked around at the waste and the desolation that he had laid upon the Xiongnu people. He looked round to see if there was additional loot.

The Zhou leader signaled to two of his men, “There is meat on the fire. Take it, and we will eat as we ride.”

The men did as they were bid.

With a last look around, the men took the hundred sheep, the twenty horses, and the three young women. Leaving Albie staked to the ground, his hands tied behind his back, and the cangue around his neck, they rode away.

After less than two hours, they were gone from sight. Albie could not free his hands. He could not stand because the horse, when it threw him, had tossed him at an awkward angle, and Albie felt that there was something wrong with his ankle. He could not rest easily, because he could not put his head down. The cangue around his neck impacted the ground long before his head could touch the soft turf of the Xiongnu valley.

By late afternoon, sweat dripped from his brow, and his neck burned. His mouth longed for the taste of cold, sweet water. As the sun set, Albie’ fear increased. That night, the clouds dispersed, and with them the heat rose through the atmosphere. The temperature fell. The moon and stars looked cold and merciless. Albie could not sleep at all. So it was that the next day, when the sun came, and the light colored the land, Albie felt thirsty, tired, and near death. His neck ached. His hands felt like they were going to fall off. His throat was parched. His thoughts felt crazy and his mind full of fear. He worried about himself. He worried about Mazus. When the sun rose, flies descended on his friends and family in the Xiongnu camp. The fires had burned out during the night, and there were black patches on the grass where the yurts had been. For as far as Albie could see in any direction, there was not a single person. He felt horror at the solitude. He knew that the Xiongnu camp was off the traditional road for any wayfarer. There should be no reason for a person to cross the plains and to find him. He gave himself up for dead.

In his mind, he saw the face of the man in the blue and purple robe. The man had a triangular jaw and crooked teeth. He had narrow eyes and thin black eyebrows. He had small ears. He was short and lightweight. He had in his throat an Adam’s apple. Albie kept the image in his mind, and he nursed a thought of revenge.

Near noon, Albie fell asleep. He slept for seven minutes, then his neck slowly drifted downwards until his windpipe was resting on the cangue, and the pressure cut off his air, and he woke again. Albie opened his eyes blearily. He fell asleep again, and a few minutes later, he was awakened again, coughing, as his air was cut off. Albie rested fitfully, waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping.

He pulled at the stake in the ground, but the captors had driven the stake deep, too deep to free.

Day turned to night. Albie thought that this night would be his last. Again the clouds parted, and again the heat vanished. Albie shivered, and he shook. The full moon shone brightly.

In the night, a man, horseworn and tired, came riding up out of the plains. Albie, spotting him in the light of the moon, tried to call out. His voice came as a kind of croak, a whisper. The man stopped in the distance. He appeared to be looking at the remains of the settlement, and trying to determine what it was that he was seeing. The yurts looked like strange structures. Their felt flapped in the wind, and the ribbed architecture of the roof looked skeletal.

The horseman rode slowly up to the encampment. Albie tried calling again. There was no voice to him left. As the man rode into the Xiongnu camp, he saw the corpses lying supine. The man stopped. He looked over the scene. He had the tense and wary energy of a stranger entering a dangerous place by night.

Albie stirred. The man nearly turned his horse and galloped away, but he checked himself. He trotted the horse forward.

“Who’s there?” asked the man in the Xiongnu tongue.

Albie tried to say his name. The sound was unintelligible and no more than a murmur.

The man rode up.

“You’re wearing a cangue,” he said. He saw then that Albie’ hands were bound behind his back.

“Are you the criminal that did this?” he asked. He was referring to the burned yurts and the dead.

“The Zhou,” whispered Albie.

The man frowned.

“Water,” whispered Albie.

The man pulled a leather pouch from his side. He dismounted, and he gave water to Albie.

“Help me,” whispered Albie.

The man frowned again. He looked around. “Who else is alive here?” he asked.

“Only me,” said Albie.

“And the rest?”

“Killed or taken,” said Albie.

“When did this happen?” asked the man.

“Help me,” whispered Albie.

“When did this happen?” demanded the man.

“Two days ago? Three?”

The man frowned.

The man led his horse away.

“Help me,” said Albie.

The man walked with his horse to a nearby yurt, and he looked inside cautiously. There was no one inside. The man walked into it. Its effects had been burned, and there was nothing useful inside. The man led his horse to the next yurt, and he repeated the process. Within a few minutes, he satisfied himself that Albie was telling the truth, that he was the only living person in the Xiongnu settlement.

The moon shone like a weak sun upon them as the man knelt next to Albie.

“Why are you in a cangue?”

“The Zhou said it was a warning,” whispered Albie. “Food. I need food. Get me out.”

The man untied the ropes that held Albie, and he broke the cangue with a stone.

Albie fell prostrate onto the ground. He was too weak to move. The man put some food into Albie’s mouth, and Albie slowly chewed it, but he could not swallow. The man lifted Albie’s head, and he poured a little water into Albie’s mouth. Albie was able to swallow.

The man put a hide of Bactrian camel fur over Albie, and he carried him into one of the burned out yurts.

There the man stayed with Albie for seven days, nursing him back to health. Albie slept most of the time, and, while Albie slept, the man buried the Xiongnu dead in accordance with what we now call slab graves. This kind of inhumation means that the people were buried in masses with their heads to the east and their feet to the west, and a great stone, that is, a slab, is laid over them. He tore the yurts down, and he reclaimed what felt he could for his own benefit.

The days grew in warmth, and on the seventh day, Albie was able to stand and to walk again. His ankle and his wrists felt tender, but he felt that they would completely heal.

As he recuperated, he thought of revenging himself on the man in the blue and purple robe, and of seeing his wife again.

At dusk, he sat down with the man, and they had their first real conversation. The man was a monk from the province of Hebei, and he had been falsely accused by the authorities for stealing seven sacks of grain from a local warlord who had, in fact, sold them for profit. The man had been forced to flee Hebei in the night, and along the roads there was a reward for his head.

“My name is Li Zhen,” the man said. “You should know that the government will arrest you and amputate your left foot. It is the penalty to those who help those who flee.”

“I owe you my life,” said Albie. “I’m not ashamed to be seen with you.”

“Then you’re welcome to come with me,” said Li Zhen. “I’m going north. But it is not an easy life. By night I ride across the hills and plains. By day I sleep.”

“I must go to the Zhou settlement,” said Albie. “I’m searching for a man with a purple and blue robe. He’s stolen my wife, and I must get her back and take my revenge on this man.”

Li Zhen thought for awhile. “Is he a small fellow? With a triangular face? And teeth like a donkey’s?”

“Yes,” said Albie.

Li Zhen said, “I know this person. His name is Lin Chow. He’s a government magistrate. He’s very corrupt, and he’s been known to murder his servants. His brother is the judge, so nothing ever happens to him. Together, they rule Cangzhou. I’m afraid that you have no hope. The city is loyal to them.”

“I have to try.”

“Do you say that they took your wife?”

“Yes.”

Li Zhen shook his head sadly.

“Why do you shake your head?”

“No,” said Li Zhen slowly. “It is not for me to say. It is merely speculation, and I would not want you to feel terror if my guesses are not correct.”

“Tell me what you think,” said Albie. “I’m not afraid of what you have to say.”

“I will tell you,” said Li Zhen. “But you must not hold me responsible if I am wrong or right. After all, I have only heard rumors, and the rumors have led me to my speculation.”

“I will not hold you responsible,” said Albie. “Just tell me what you think.”

Li Zhen looked out over the plains to the mountains beyond. He did not meet Albie’s eyes. He said, “I’ve been told that Lin Chow’s sister is the madame of the brothel in Cangzhou. If that’s true, then your wife is probably a whore by now.”

“I feared as much,” said Albie. “I have no time to waste. I must go.”

“But you don’t have a sword, a horse, or even any food.”

“I know the way to Cangzhou. That’s enough. I’ll steal and beg if I have to. But there is nothing for me here. Everything that I cared about is in my heart, with my people, who are dead, and with my wife who is captive.”

“Well,” said Li Zhen. “I will not go with you. I think your road leads to death. You are welcome to come with me. There are many more women in the world, and who knows? Maybe your wife is already dead. It’s suicide to take your path.”

“I have to go,” said Albie. “Even if it kills me.”

“Then take at least some rice that I have, and take with you my friendship and hopes for a good result,” said Li Zhen.

“Thank you,” said Albie. “You’ve saved my life, and I’ll never forget it. If I can ever do anything for you, no matter how big or small, you have only to ask, and I’ll do everything in my power to help you.”

“It was only what anyone would do,” said Li Zhen.

They hugged. Li Zhen gave Albie a bag of cooked rice, and Albie started into the mountains. He passed the river where he had bathed just a week before, when everything in his life had seemed peaceful and serene. He climbed up the mountain which the Zhou raiders had hidden behind. He crested it, and he looked over the rivers and dells that lay beyond.

The way to Cangzhou was a three day ride, and it would be a week long walk.

Albie walked by the river, and he ate only small amounts from the rice every day. He was thin and lean. He passed field laborers, and he begged vegetables from them. They gave him spinach and rice. One night he came upon a couple of men sitting beside a fire. They said that they were bandits, but, because Albie had nothing for them to steal, and because he too was against the government, then they let him eat with them. They gave him stewed goat with bok choi, and they let him share their wine. Albie told them his story of the Zhou raiders, and, when the men exchanged empathetic glances, Albie asked them why they looked at each other that way. The bandits also said that Yang Wu, the sister of Lin Chow, was the mistress of a bordello, and that Albie’s wife was likely working for her. This information made Albie more determined than ever to reach Cangzhou and revenge himself upon Lin Chow.

When the bandits went to sleep that night, Albie repaid their kindness by stealing one of the bandits’ swords, and by riding away in the night with one of their horses and some of their food. He felt desperate. It was the first time that he had ever stolen anything. With the horse, he made better progress toward Cangzhou, and with the sword he felt more confident.

He realized that he would need a plan for confronting Lin Chow, and he devised one as he rode. He thought that because Lin Chow had cut off the heads of his family and friends, that he wanted to cut Lin Chow’s head off too.

At last, Albie settled on a plan.

When he reached Cangzhou, he found that it was a city bigger than any that he had ever been to before. There seemed to be a maze of streets stretching before him.

Albie stopped at the first place that he came to. There was a tall thin man who was pickled fish and chickens. When Albie stepped up to his stall, the man cut the head off a chicken with a large cleaver.

“Can I help you?” the man asked. He was deftly plucking the chicken, not even looking at it as he spoke to Albie.

“I’m looking for the fine and reputable establishment that I hear is run by the elegant Yang Wu.”

The chicken seller broke into a smile. “Ah! Hello stranger! You must be from out of town, because everyone in town knows where Yang Wu keeps her business.”

“I’m from out of town. Where is it?”

“It’s the only building in the town that has four doors. They are so that people can move discreetly in and out of the entrances. Just keep going into town. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

“Here,” said the shopkeeper. “Buy a chicken or some fish too, won’t you?”

“No, thank you,” said Albie, and he rode on.

When Albie saw the building with four doors, he noticed that it was across the street from the government office.

Albie went into the brothel. It was dark and cool inside, and there was a girl drinking tea and eating sheep.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m here because I heard that there are new girls working here now.”

“Yes, there are three.”

“I want to see them,” said Albie.

The girl nodded, and she rose. She went past a curtain, and she was gone for a short time.

Albie felt his heart pounding in his chest.

When the girl came back, she had Mazus and the other two girls from the Xiongnu camp with her. They all expressed surprise at seeing them, but he shook his head quickly so that they would not speak. They looked tired and weary. They looked sad and broken. Albie felt hatred surge in his heart for Yang Wu.

“These girls look cheap and broken,” he said to the girl. “I was told that they were new.”

The girl shrugged. “They are Xiongnu girls,” she said. “What do you expect? Of course they are cheap.”

Albie held his temper. “I want to speak to the madam,” he said. “Yang Wu. Bring her to me.”

“You don’t want the girls?” asked the assistant.

“I traveled a long way to be here,” said Albie. “I was under the impression that the girls would look fresh and healthy. These girls look like they’ve been sleeping on a bed of iron every night and being fed with salt and water.”

The assistant shrugged and she went to get the madam.

As soon as she was gone, Albie and Mazus stepped forward. They embraced, and they hugged.

“I’m so glad you’re alive!” said Mazus. “I thought you were dead! Where did you get that sword? How did you survive?”

“Hush!” said Albie. “I’ll tell you everything soon. Now you should know that I have a horse, and a plan to get us all out of here. But you must play along—Yang Wu must be coming soon.”

Mazus stepped back. A few moments later, Yang Wu entered through the curtains. Albie was pretending to be examining the wall.

“What is it that you want?” asked Yang Wu. She was dressed in silky reds and golds , and she wore seven golden rings on her fingers. She had an evil face like an old and cunning wart hog’s. “You come into my place, and you tell me that my girls are not good enough? You should see yourself. You don’t look like a prince. You look like a scrawny vine.”

“Where is your assistant?” said Albie. “Bring her in too. I will show you more gold than you have ever seen in your life, and I want your assistant here so that she can speak to the truth of it. And I want you to tell everyone in town that there’s a new man with deep pockets, and he’s willing to spend—but only on the very best!”

Yang Wu looked doubtful. She called her assistant in, however, then Yang Wu said, “Now show me the gold.”

Albie instead drew his sword, and with one great swipe he cut off the head of Yang Wu. With a second great swipe, he split the assistant in half.

“You were a fool to trust me,” Albie said. “But your brother was an even greater one for leaving me alive. If your ghost wishes to haunt anyone, then haunt him for his foolishness. He is the true cause of your death. Without him, I would never have come here.”

Mazus and the other two girls were delighted to see that they had been freed.

“Let’s go home,” said Mazus.

Albie shook his head. “That’s impossible. Our home is gone. And I want revenge on Lin Chow. Here is my plan. I want one of you to go to the government office, and to request Lin Chow’s presence. Tell him that his sister, Yang Wu, has learned information which only he must hear, and that he must come immediately.”

One of the Xiongnu girls left to make the request.

“The other two of you,” said Albie, “Must help me clean this space. We cannot have corpses lying in the entranceway. If someone comes in, it would ruin our plans.”

Albie and the two women lifted the corpses of Yang Wu and her assistant out of the entranceway, and they placed them in rooms of the brothel.

“Now,” said Albie to his wife. “Stand outside the brothel. When Lin Chow comes, tell him to go into the brothel through one of the side doors. This will prevent him from seeing the bloodstains on the entranceway floor. When he inside, tell him to go into the room where his dead sister is. Tell him she is waiting for him there.”

Mazus agreed, and, a short time later, Lin Chow arrived at the brothel. Mazus stopped him from going in. She whispered in his ear that there was a special surprise for him. Lin Chow grinned widely. Mazus told him to go into the brothel by the side entrance, and Lin Chow did so. Then, she instructed Lin Chow to go into the room of the brothel where they had placed his dead sister.

During this time, Albie was waiting across the hall in a separate room. He heard Lin Chow enter brothel, and he heard him open the door. Then he heard Lin Chow scream in despair.

Albie appeared from behind the curtain. Lin Chow was holding his face in his hands. He was wearing his purple and blue robe.

“You left me to die,” said Albie. “And you destroyed my village and prostituted my wife. A simple death was too good for you.”

Then Albie ran Lin Chow through with the sword.

Albie took his wife and the two women from the Xiongnu community, and together they left the Zhou lands and went back into the Xiongnu lands. There they joined another nomadic tribe. Albie and Mazus had four children together, and their children had children, and Albie and Mazus lived happily ever after.

 

Categories
Stories

The Kraken

The Kraken describes the monstrous octopus-like creature and its home, and the story also tells of the dreadful voyage of a Spanish ship which was attacked by a kraken in June of 1842.

IMG_6456.JPG

The Mariana Trench is known as the deepest canyon in the world. It lies nearly seven miles beneath the Pacific Ocean’s surface. The canyon appears to be an enormous crack on the ocean floor, jagged in shape and lightless in color. The creatures that live along the trench usually live near thermal vents which supply hot water and nutrients from the core of planet Earth. They are mostly small, spineless things, often transparent, usually simple in their cellular structure. They are known as extremophiles, because of their love of the extreme, and science does not often trifle with them nor do merchants traffic in them. Accordingly, the Mariana Trench is a place that is very quiet, calm, and alone. It might well be closer in character to deep space than to the humming, thriving terrestrial gardens upon Earth’s crust.

But there is a place in the Mariana Trench which lies at the juncture of a thermal vent and an underwater cavern. Here boiling water spews into the cavern, thousands of gallons worth of heat at a time, and the heat disperses throughout the cave. The result is that a pocket of warm water exists in an otherwise polar environment. This sea cavern is a haven for life. Within the pocket live sea cucumbers, snails, and spineless fish.

This sea cave is also the birthplace and nesting ground of the kraken.

There are many kraken in this cavern, as many kraken as there are rats in Paris. Most frequently, however, the kraken never leave their cavernous home, preferring instead to cling to the walls of the cave in the warmth, darkness, and serenity of their underground lair. For thousands of years, these krakens have bred and died many fathoms beneath the surface of the sea. They grow to colossal sizes, and as they grow older and larger, they become more languid and leathery.

The life span of a kraken is, more or less, a thousand years. They are born as thin-skinned, slimy creatures, and, at the beginning of their lives, they spend most of their time swimming near the heat vent at the mouth of the cave. Near the end of their twentieth year, they begin their adolescence, and they move to the walls of the cave. They find a rocky place on the wall, and they cling to it, only leaving from time to time to eat sea cucumbers and sea snails.

As the kraken grow older and more torpid, their skin hardens and thickens into leathery armor. The kraken gradually move into the darker, colder parts of the cave, further and further away from the heat vent. The greatest of the kraken occupy the coldest, most tomblike recesses of the cavern. There they remain for so long, and their skin becomes so hard, that they appear to become part of the cave. These great kraken can weigh up to five thousand pounds, and they can measure a quarter of a mile from the tips of their tentacles to the tops of their heads.

Around their five hundredth year, the kraken temporarily depart the cave. For a single day, the kraken visit the surface of the water. In order to surface, the kraken slowly unstick themselves from the cave wall, where they’ve held themselves on with suckers. The unsticking process is a slow one, and, for some kraken, it is deadly. Calcium builds on kraken while they remain stuck to the cave wall, and the calcium deposits cement the kraken to the walls. Many of the kraken are so attached to the stone that portions of their skin or entire tentacles rip off as they unstick themselves. These kraken can bleed to death.

Once unstuck, then the kraken swim out of the cave and into the Mariana Trench. The kraken then spend nearly a month in the laborious process of surfacing. When they reach the surface, they spend time in the sun. It is during this time that they are most aggressive, and it is during this time that ships can be attacked.

After seeing the sun, the kraken return to their sea cavern in the Mariana Trench, and they never leave the cave again. The kraken find a place deep in the recesses of the cave, and there they stay for the rest of their existence. When an ancient sea kraken dies, its body is fed on by young krakens, and so the cycle of life continues.

Benito Curácon was a sailor with long black hair and broad shoulders, dark heavy eyebrows, a smoldering scowl, and once-white skin now tanned to rawhide. His teeth were tartaric. His arms shone with sweat, tattoos, and corded muscle. His chest, beneath his ripped white cotton shirt, was comprised of a washboard stomach and strong pectorals. That white shirt lay open at the collar so that a V of skin could be seen, as could Benito’s leather necklace which held as its pendant a sailor’s knot made of gold. He wore shorts upon the ship’s deck, and he walked barefoot. His toenails were long or broken. His ears were pierced, and he kept in them thorn shaped ornaments of ebony wood. The man carried his life’s fortune in a sealskin bag that he tied to his waist; in the bag were some eight pieces of silver.

The ship was called The Maiden’s Fancy, and she was a whaler. Her length was one hundred and twenty feet, with a beam of twenty-nine feet, and a burthen of six hundred tons. The Maiden’s Fancy had as her figurehead the carving of a near bare-breasted woman, her hair flying backward, and her eyes uplifted as to the horizon beyond.

Eighteen men crewed The Maiden’s Fancy, and her captain was Jorge Rodriguez. Captain Rodriguez’ reputation was that of a martinet. Cold, severe, grave, high-handed and authoritarian, Captain Rodriguez wore a stiff tall collar and a pea jacket in weather fair or foul. He wore tapered breeches and boots which a crewman shined to a mirror polish every morning. Captain Rodriguez was well known for beating a Chinese traveler and author on one voyage, and he was legendary for having reputedly slashed the throat of an idle, drunken sailor during another voyage in the Indian Ocean. The gallows sought him in Cadiz, but when the trial came, the crewmen’s testimonies did not, and the rumor was that the judge was paid handsomely in gold, and the press in silver, so that the result was that Captain Rodriguez not only escaped with his neck, but came out looking all the finer for it.

If he was known for his murderous temper, he was equally as well known for his extraordinary skills in navigation and his command of a ship. His father had been a captain, and his grandfather a sailor. It was said, without much doubt, that Captain Rodriguez had spent more time on sea than land, and that his mother had nursed him on milk and salt water.

So it was that he retained his command, fiery but fair, competent beyond the measure of all other captains.

Benito Curácon was a hard-working, capable sailor, and though he’d been slapped by Captain Rodriguez on one occasion, he knew that the other sailors aboard The Maiden’s Fancy had all suffered worse at Captain Rodriguez’ hands, and that he, Benito, was, so far as Captain Rodriguez’ good graces went, in them.

On nearly every ship there’s a despicable man, and the man that Benito Curácon and his fellow sailors despised was the first mate. Tall and gangly and with olive colored skin and pretty black curly hair and green eyes, the first mate, Salvador Bucarelli, was a Spaniard by birth, half Italian by ancestry. He was handsome and vain, sneering by the overhead light of the full sun, striking with his clenched fists by the horizontal lights of dusk and dawn, and threatening with knives by the glimmer of the stars. The first mate came from wealthy stock, knew nothing of the water, and, worse still, took a sadistic pleasure in the torment of the crew. His captain hated him and shackled him as he could, but the Bucarelli family owned a share of the ship, and so Bucarelli could operate with great latitude and little fear of reprisal.

Bucarelli had found that he could push the crew to the brink of mutiny against him, but no further. The crew feared and respected Captain Rodriguez too much for insurrection, and they relied upon his unparalleled seamanship.

It was a cloudy morning in June of 1842 when the sun rose on a stretch of water so flat and calm that it was like a sheet of blue glass. Floating like a toy boat upon this seemingly limitless expanse of blue was The Maiden’s Fancy. Not another boat had been seen for days, nor was there any to be expected. The morning, despite the month, felt cool and fresh. The sailors rose from their cabins. One man replaced the night’s watch.

Bucarelli was having coffee with the captain, which was the first thing that the cook was instructed to make every morning. He made it in a cast iron pan over flames from a coal fire in his galley, and he strained out the grounds with a knife held to the lip of the pan, with the result that the coffee was always saturated with grounds at the bottom of the cup.

Now the cook was busy preparing breakfast for the sailors, the mate, and the captain. There was half an apple for each man, and a whole one for the captain and the mate. There was salt pork, fried like bacon, and sea biscuits or hardtack, which tasted of flour and salt.

The sails were up, but there was no wind. There was not much spoken, other than the good morning greetings, and a few utterances about what must be done for the day.

Benito Curácon’s morning washing consisted in splashing his face and body with salt water pulled up from the sea by the bucket. He ran his fingers through his long hair to comb it back, and he looked out on the ocean. All was water, everywhere, all about. There was nothing to see but water and clouds, sky and sun.

A voice came. It was Bucarelli’s. His knife was not sharp enough to cut the salt pork, he said.

Curácon curled his lip in contempt. He looked up.

Bucarelli was walking up the steps from the captain’s quarters. His features looked aristocratic, his step petulant. He was carrying the knife.

Bucarelli walked across the deck, and he trotted down the steps to the galley.

Curácon heard a sound. Captain Rodriguez had stepped to the top stair of his captain’s quarters, and he was watching the movements of his first mate. Captain Rodriguez wiped his lips with a stained white cloth napkin, then he tossed the napkin back into his quarters.

A moment later, Bucarelli appeared on deck again. Now he had the cook by the hair, and the knife to the cook’s throat.

“Who is responsible for sharpening the knives aboard this ship?” he asked.

“I am!” screamed the cook, miserably twitching in the first mate’s grasp.

“Then you’ll know that the knives should be sharp!”

“Yes!”

“We’ll test this one,” said Bucarelli, smiling evilly.

The other sailors had stopped to watch. The captain was watching. Everything, for a moment, seemed still. The wind was dead, and the ship was fixed like in a painting. The water was still. The crew stood silent. Bucarelli stood with the knife at the cook’s throat.

“I will draw this knife across your throat,” Bucarelli said. “And we’ll see if the blade’s been whetted right.”

Bucarelli began to draw the knife across the cook’s throat, and a drop of blood appeared. Its redness could be seen against the cook’s olive skin from thirty feet away.

“Enough,” said Captain Rodriguez. “Take your hands off that cook, Bucarelli.”

“No,” said Bucarelli.

“No?” said the captain.

Bucarelli sneered. “You can’t do anything to me,” he said, and he slit the cook’s throat.

The cook gasped, a horrible sickening sound, and he grasped his throat. Blood poured around his fingers as the cook slumped to the ground.

“Catch him!” shouted the captain, roaring at his sailors and pointing at Bucarelli. He looked over, and he saw Benito Curácon. “Benito! Now!”

Benito moved forward, and, as he did, he saw other sailors—Juan Gamboa, Fernando Silva, and Ricardo Benítez advancing as well.

Out of the corner of his eye, Benito detected movement in the flat ocean. There was a very strange, large ripple. He glanced at it. Crowning the ocean surface was hideous monster.

It was a kraken. It was shaped like a colossal octopus. Its head was brown and grey. Its eyes were black. The tentacles of the creature rose from the surface of the ocean. A spume of misty saltwater rose around it, and the ocean seemed to bubble and to boil from the froth raised by its motion.

Benito became aware that the sailors were screaming. He looked back aboard the vessel at his shipmates. Bucarelli’s olive face had turned ashen, and the knife had slipped from his fingers. His eyes were wide as he stared out at the strange and frightening monster.

Benito then became aware of words, shouted words, from his captain.

“Below!” Captain Rodriguez was hoarsely crying. “Man the oars! Man the oars!”

Benito glanced up. Indeed the wind was still so calm that it did not so much as ruffle the sail. He rushed toward the hatch with the other sailors to man the oars. They would need to paddle away.

As he reached the hatch, Benito looked back at the scene. The monster had certainly seen the ship, and it was swimming toward them at a tremendous speed. There was no hope, Benito realized, of paddling faster than the monster. Paddling was slow, and it would take time to create any speed at all. The kraken would be upon them before they were able to row any distance.

With a sinking, hopeless feeling in his chest, Benito realized that the kraken would reach them, clutch their ship in its powerful tentacles, and drag them to the bottom of the sea. He had heard tales of it before. He’d heard how quickly ships foundered, how the strength of the kraken could crush the mast’s timbers and break spars like toothpicks. He’d heard of the Charybdian whirlpools that the monster would suck them into, and how the sailors would be carried down with their treasure and their dreamless sleep, past the fishes and to the bottom of the sandy sea where the ruins of other ships lay in perpetuity, where the water was blue and dark and cold, and the fish nibbled the flesh off men’s bones and left them as skeletons which the currents passed through.

In a flash of rage at this merciless fate, Benito pushed his long hair out of his eyes, and he rushed across the deck to Bucarelli. Benito Curácon felt that he had nothing to lose, no future to look forward to. He felt fury. He felt a desire for revenge. Reaching Bucarelli, Curácon punched him in the face, as a token of revenge for the murder that the first mate had done.

The kraken swam closer. Its eyes rose above the level of the sea. Its tentacles streamed behind it, propelling it forward.

On the deck, Captain Rodriguez was shouting. Curácon felt the captain strike him across the back.

“Below decks, sailor!” shouted Captain Rodriguez. “Man the oars!”

But Benito Curácon knew that it was too late for the oar. In front of him, Bucarelli reeled back from the punch, then he staggered. He found his balance, and he touched his nose where it was broken.

The ship was, in fact, very still. Curácon could hear the oars rattling through their port holes. He could hear his fellow men shouting in the galley. But no oar had yet touched water, and the wind was not in the sails.

Bucarelli lunged at Curácon. Curácon jabbed with his knee, and he caught Bucarelli in the chin with it, rattling Bucarelli’s teeth. Bucarelli rose, grabbing his mouth. His face was pale and frightened. Curácon hit him again, and the punch spun Bucarelli around. Curácon caught Bucarelli by the belt and the shoulder, and, facing the direction of the monster, Curácon ran forward with Bucarelli to the rail on the deck, then, reaching that rail, Curácon hurled the first mate overboard.

The first mate plunged into the water with a scream and a splash. A moment later, he bobbed up again. The ship’s tender lay on the opposite side of the ship, and there were no cables or ropes hanging down from the side of the ship that Bucarelli was on, so he struck out in a strong crawl stroke toward the opposite side of the boat.

The kraken had observed all this. It saw the man thrown overboard, and it saw him splashing about in the water.

The kraken disappeared underwater. A few moments later, the ripples from its swim vanished, and the sun broke through the clouds.

Only Captain Rodriguez and Benito Curácon stood on deck. But for the faint sounds of Bucarelli swimming, and but for the cook’s corpse upon the deck, the day seemed calm and peaceful and like any other.

The men found that they were holding their breaths. There came the faint rattling of oars.

“Quiet down there!” roared the captain, rushing to the hatch and shouting down into the galley. “It’s too late to paddle. Stay still men! Stay still and quiet!”

The sounds stopped immediately.

It might have been a just another pretty day at sea, save for the men’s feelings which were thick with fear.

Curácon drew a breath. He looked out over the water. The kraken was gone.

All was quiet and calm.

Then, suddenly, a tentacle flashed out of the water, and it seized the hull of the ship. Yanking at the hull, the kraken pulled the ship down, nearly to the water.

Casks and barrels toppled over. Curácon and the captain tripped and fell, sliding toward starboard side.

Then, just as suddenly, the tentacle released the ship, and the ship sprung back to her natural balance, whipping back and forth until she regained her equilibrium.

They heard a scream. It was a short, piercing scream. It was Bucarelli’s voice.

Too horrified to move, Curácon and Captain Rodriguez, both of whom were laying on their sides up against the guardrail, met one another’s eyes. In each of the other’s eyes, they read what the sound had meant. Bucarelli had been dragged underwater by the kraken.

The men felt they were next. They remained calm, and very still. They did not move a muscle. But no further sounds were heard.

They waited. Their muscles were tense.

Their feelings were anxious. They felt consumed by horror.

Nothing happened.

The kraken had taken Bucarelli, and it had vanished.

Slowly, gingerly, the two men rose to their feet. They looked one another in the eye. They saw terror in one another’s features. The men breathed again. Slowly, very slowly, the captain walked to the hatch.

“Sailors,” he called. “Come up slowly. Very slowly. Do not make a sound.”

In a few minutes, all of the sailors were standing on the deck again. None of them spoke. They looked round.

The day was partly cloudy. There was not a puff of wind in the air. The sea was as smooth as blue ice.