The Tale of Avet Longfellow of Liverpool

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
—Edgar Allan Poe

 

Avet almost lost his cap as a clip of cold air blew at his bent frame, but he did not dare let go of the net. Salt crusted around his lips and gathered like snow in his short beard. His hands were raw from the sting of the sea and the bite of the rope. Beneath his layers, his biceps burned with the day’s hard labors.

Another gale roared upwards, and together the men roared back. The Ariel was a lazy cork bobbing on the slate gray sea, the immense trawler’s twin masts puncturing the sky. With every roll of the swells below, it became harder for the crew to haul in their catch. The net was soaked through, having been towed behind the ship since reaching open water. Now, with no land in sight, the net was bursting with the probability of fish.

It was not raining, but they might as well have been in the middle of a tempest the way their clothes and bodies dripped from the spray of swells against the hull. Avet had to keep blinking the stinging water from his eyes.

Avet was a healthy brute. Tall and weather-beaten, his skin looked as tan and durable as leather. His eyes were a periwinkle blue beneath the ledge of his brow, though such fine detail was lost in a face like his. His features were carved like a mountain range.

“Heave to, boys!” he shouted and spit to one side as the spray landed on his tongue.

Together, the group of seamen surged, and as one, pulled the first fish over the side. Each large, shining body landed with a great thud onto the deck and slid about their feet. The rest came easy. With the help of a rigged line and the men’s own brute strength, the catch spilled out across the panes of wood. What hit the deck elicited excitement from the sky above. A swarm of gulls and albatross screamed their pleasure at the possibility of a feast, and the fishermen below knew they would have to fight off their advances.

The net lay in a heap, fish wriggling and reeling in a mass of scales and fish-slime. Avet’s eyes, fixated on the flashing of silver, suddenly saw the most grotesque spectacles he had ever seen. A great mass of flesh—sickly gray and swollen in horrible deformity—lay on the foredeck. The body was bloated, skin stretching to the point of nearly splitting. Its hands were large, chalky white, and round as balloons. The face was twisted, all lips and nose. The sea had erased the rest of its features. The malformed corpse was barely recognizable as human. Though it has not been human for quite some time, Avet thought as he gazed down at the curiosity.

Long immune to the scent of death and the stinking rot of fish, Avet found himself surprised that he could detect the stench of the body at all. It was a sour smell, a different kind of rot. It was the scent of nightmares and horrors, one that Avet recognized.

He had seen a sight like this when he was barely twelve years of age. The memory is fragmented, but vivid: from the dark stain of brain matter across cobblestone to the vacant, glassy orbs set deep in the stranger’s face. Those eyes had stared through him as he stood frozen in his shoes in the dank alley. Repressed into the dark cellar of memory, he had forgotten this horror that had plagued his childhood.

Avet was brought back to the foredeck as a man to his left cried out and stumbled through the slog of fish to heave the contents of his stomach over the side. The rest remained motionless, unsure how to proceed. Bran, a burly man with a graying beard and coal eyes, was the first to speak aloud.

“It’s spoiled our whole catch,” he said gruffly. Even as he spoke, the corpse shifted on its own accord. Avet thought it possessed until he saw that the engorged skin had finally burst open along its torso. The tension leaving the bloated body caused it to move as it expelled its contents onto the deck. The wound was all puss, entrails gleaming from inside the gaping mouth of the opening. The thought of preserving even a single fish from the deck made Avet’s stomach recoil. The body of the dead man had turned everything around it putrid.

The men recoiled and flinched as one of the birds from above dove for the deck with a scream. It landed on the mound of soft flesh, its dark wings hovering aggressively over its claim. Without pause, the winged beast sunk its sharp beak into the belly of the corpse and began to feast. No one dared move forward to stop it, for its wingspan was nearly eight feet across and the downward curve of its beak seemed to cut through the putrid entrails of the corpse like butter.

The men waited, and soon they began to gather the net from where it draped precariously close to the edge of the foredeck. The seas were moderate, but no one wanted to risk loosing a fine net, no matter the circumstances. The albatross did not relinquish its meal for some hours, a time in which the men began to go about their duties. Another net was cast to make up for the lost catch, courses were checked and the tiller was adjusted to accommodate for the changes. Everyone simply ignored the pile of molten flesh that still emanated rot from the foredeck.

Avet found his eyes falling on the grotesque scene of the once-man and the beastly bird more than once. His gut twisted at the mystery of who the man had been. Every time Avet glanced in its direction, a new face emerged in his mind of what the man could have previously looked like, though it was impossible to tell now even what gender the mass of gelatinous flesh had previously embodied.

When they could ignore it no longer, Avet led a group of men to the scene equipped with a decent length of rope and an armful of stones. The immense bird was gone, and a smaller huddle of gulls had taken its place. With a startling yell from the men, they abandoned the remains without a fuss.

Avet stepped forward. In his hand, he clutched a knife with a bleached bone handle and a serrated edge. Swallowing his disgust, he leaned forward, and—keeping the rank body an arm’s-length away—he sawed open the bubbling wound. The flesh caught for a moment, and then gave way to the blade’s teeth. Before he could taste the bile rising in his gullet, Avet took the stones from Bran’s arms and shoved them unceremoniously into the belly of the corpse. He ignored the foulness and the cold entrails that pressed against his fingers. He moved with a calculated calm until the job was done. Then, wrapping the body as securely as they could in the line, they heaved the entire mass over the side of the ship and into the waves below.

 

***

 

That night, they hauled in their biggest catch of the trip. The nets teemed with fish as they brought them to the surface. It was almost too much for their cargo holds to accommodate, and as the sun set, the possibility of arriving back home soon twinkled in the forefront of their minds.

Avet’s , however, was shrouded in worry. He imagined the body sinking into the twilight of the ocean, fish nibbling at the pale flesh with their swollen lips, skin and muscle and organs turning to indistinguishable mush. I came to mind every time he thought he had forgotten it. Preoccupied, he didn’t notice the telltale signs of the tempest brewing in the distance.

The smell of rain came before anyone knew a storm was on its way. A rumble lazily drifted across the water. Mistaken as a trick of the ear, no one paid mind to the warning until it was followed by a second. Then, a third. A crisp wind filled the sails overhead, and the men took note, using the power to keep them on course.

A solid wall of black blew in from the starboard side, and soon the dark horizon was indistinguishable from the churning sea below. The Ariel’s immense mast bobbed like a white cork as the swells picked up the wooden trawler and tossed her from one side to the other. The wind whistled as it blew through the tangle of lines above, and over the rail—if a man were brave enough to step so close to the edge of the deck in this weather—white caps burst and crashed against one another. It hell were a place at sea, this storm would be it.

It came upon them so suddenly; there was no time for preparation. The rain came first, a sheet of solid water that pounded against the foredeck. The onslaught drenched Avet in moments. It pulled at his clothes and tossed his salt-crushed hair into his face. The drops were so heavy that he could barely blink his vision clear before more flooded into the deep ridges of his face.

As the lightning flashed like a strobe overhead, the deck and the churning water below was illuminated in one great moment of brightness. Amid the whitecaps, Avet say the distinct features of a face, mouth wide in a silent scream. It was so striking, so unbelievably vivid, that the seaman stumbled backwards. Another man grabbed his arm, anchoring him in place. Avet blinked the water out of his eyes and turned to the arm holding him steadily on the rocking deck.

“Alright, there?” Bran said gruffly, looking past Avet.

Avet turned and looked to the waves just as another clap of thunder lit up the waves. A flash of white made the grown man jump in alarm.

“There, in the wave—“ he muttered, but another boom covered his words and he went silent. Bran shook his head and left him as a few men handling the masts cried out for help. The steady gale was fighting against the white material, and the lines were twisting around one another. Above, a few brave individuals were attempting to secure the loose folds of sail before the wind rendered them useless.

Avet’s eyes darted from one seaman’s face to the other as each flash of light illuminated the scene. Every time their features were revealed, he trembled. To him, it seemed almost as if the mutilated corpse had resurfaced to work the crew. He saw its grotesque features in every man working the foredeck. Everywhere he turned he saw glassy eyes and mounds of rotting flesh. It was altogether impossible but far too real for him to ignore. It was maddening.

Avet let his jaw slacken as he let out a low wail. The wind grabbed his moan of despair and matched pitch with it as the ship rocked beneath him. Bran, seeing his crewmate sway, reached out for Avet’s frame as the large man collapsed, but was too late. He hit the deck like a sack of stone. Body limp, he stared ahead, face illuminated by the lightning and mind swimming with the horrors of what he had done.

 

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