Erik Gern makes his Garbled debut with this well written science fiction tale.
The sand encrusted my eyes as I awoke on the beach. Beneath me the seawater moved in and out, splashing into my mouth, mixing with my spit. The inside of my mouth felt raw. I rubbed my eyes fruitlessly, the blisters on the backs of my hands burning. My eyes adjusted to the sunlight, and I saw the beach stretch before me.
I stood to get my bearings, my empty scabbard tapping against my calf. My mind felt sluggish, perhaps from drinking seawater. I remembered a storm, feet sliding across the deck, my fraying, soggy rope pulled tight around my waist. Then I felt a snap, a plunge, and . . . nothing else.
I looked up and down the beach which stretched into a wide bay around me. I surmised that the currents of the Caribbean Sea must have borne me from my ship, the Nantucket Whore, to this place. When the storm overtook us, we had sailed a week out from Hispaniola. It seemed doubtful I had washed ashore there, for I would have seen some sign of civilization: chimney smoke, fish nets, driftwood. There was nothing on the beach but brilliant white sand.
I turned. The forest behind me was not like that found on Hispaniola or the rest of the Caribbean, where the Nantucket Whore raided unlucky, ill-manned merchant ships. This was not even like the forests of Rhode Island, where I had been born and raised. The leaves grew blue on the trees, the bark white as fallen snow; the branches reached up like those of evergreen trees, not like the slumping palms found in the Caribbean.
Is this where the Lord has brought me? Is it the work of his counterpart? Will this be where I atone for my sins?
Thirst dried my throat soon after awakening. I was wary of venturing into those strange woods, but my fear of death — if this place were an earthly dominion — was stronger than my fear of the forest. I found branches low to the ground under canopy cover. Morning dew dotted the leaves, which looked like blue velvet in my hand. I shook a lowered twig and let the drops fall on my tongue. It would not be enough.
I must have woken late in the day, as the sun set behind the blue forest not long after. I sat on the beach gazing at the stars, my stomach growling. They did not shine in familiar constellations. The Two Bears and the Hunter were missing, and unfamiliar shapes took their place.
This was not Hell, not the place of torment preached by the fiery ministers of my childhood home in Rhode Island. There were no fires of eternal torment here, no sulfurous fumes. But I did not feel the presence of God here.
I knew why he had abandoned me.
I had fallen into the ways of piracy, seeking a life of adventure far from Rhode Island. In the two weeks since I joined the crew of the Nantucket Whore we sunk four merchant ships, taken everything in their holds, and killed every last man we found, though none fell by my own hand. Our captain was no taskmaster, our success easy to come by in the ill-patrolled waters of the Caribbean. We fell into the ways of debauched men, drinking spirits, retching our water over the side, then drinking more to fill the void. We wore the fine, gold-embroidered uniforms of the merchant officers like dandies. In port, I knew four women of ill repute in one night.
The next night, the storm took me.
Be I in Heaven or Hell, I knew that I would surely go mad if I didn’t escape from this place. But I had no axe, nor saw, nor even the dull blade of a shaving knife to cut wood with. I had cast aside my empty scabbard, my cutlass lost to the waves.
I examined the strange trees. Though their white barks and blue velvet marked them as unlike anything in the knowledge of Man, the trees still grew like other trees, shedding their leaves. I knelt to look at the brush underfoot, noting that the leaves turned the color of wine after falling. I also found fallen twigs there among the dead leaves. If storms blow through, I reasoned, then large branches must surely be sloughed off. With some effort, I could find a sufficient number to lash into a raft.
First, I collected shells from the beach, conch shells the size of the palm of my hand that stand out against the eerie forest floor. I dropped them behind me like breadcrumbs as I walked into the forest. The air cooled under the canopy. I took off my blue bandanna and wiped the sand from my long, oily, blond hair, then tucked it into the waistband of my trousers. On I went for two hours by my reckoning.
I only found branches little bigger than the twigs underfoot. The trees seemed to be the only things that grew here. No furry creatures burrowed, no birds roosted here.
I was abandoning my search when I saw the Cymbid.
Once, when I was young, I visited the house of a wealthy Rhode Island elder under a false pretense of selling shares of apple crops. I saw a vase there, colored black with red clay etchings, depicting scenes of Greek vulgarity and lust. The thing — the plant — that sprouted from the ground in front of me looked much like that vase. Its body was a dull indigo in color, and amber tendrils spouted from its maw at the top.
I recognized the plant for what it was. On the Nantucket Whore, one of the other sailors — or pirates, if I be honest — had bought one in some distant port of the Orient. He did not tell how he came about this creature, which the pirate called a Cymbid, and it died soon after. The pirate described it in some detail, but I found it so ludicrous as not worthy of any future thought.
I recalled that night in horror upon seeing the Cymbid as it waved its amber tendrils toward me. “No!” I shouted, “Devil the hindmost!” I ran the way I had come, my feet crushing the conch shells underfoot.
I resolved the next day to navigate the beach. I hoped to find some change in the landscape, some respite from the countless strange blue-and-white trees. Because the sun rose above the ocean, I headed north by keeping the forest to my left.
As I walked that beach, I saw dozens of other Cymbids rising and burrowing in the ground near the edge of the forest. They seemed like turnips animated with fairy spirits. They swept the fallen leaves with their tendrils and dropped bunches of them into the maw at the top of their vaselike bodies. Strange plants, I thought.
I continued well past nightfall, until I could not keep my eyes open. I laid down in the sand and drew in my legs and arms against the wind. In the morning, I kept walking.
I did so for two days.
On the third day, near mid-morning, I spotted footsteps in the sand! I ran to follow, but the trail swooped like a drunken man. Surely he could give me shelter for a day or two, surely he could give me provisions to continue north to the nearest port.
But surely, the footsteps split, one set into the forest and back, one set northward. I recognized them as my own.
How can this be? I had kept the ocean to my right, heading north for three days. How could I arrive at the same spot without turning south? If this were an island, I would have gone counter-clockwise, following the shore. I would not have arrived where I had begun had I not changed direction.
I knew then that this place must be Hell. I felt despair settle into my stomach like an anchor into the depths of the sea. I knelt on the sand, the coarse grains cutting my knees with a million pricks, and wept for my damned soul.
As I awoke the next morning, my throat so dry I could not swallow what little spit I had in my mouth, I saw a dead tuna on the sand. Its eyes had been gouged out, and its lip had been torn by a hook. From head to tail it lay two feet long.
My heart pounded, not sure how I should prepare the fish, or if I should just eat it raw. I decided to play the civilized man for a day longer. I went into the strange forest again and gathered twigs, leaves, and a branch which I snapped in two. One half of the branch I lay on the ground. I slid the other across my hands in the fashion of the plains savages. I was able to start a fire after two hours. Using the snapped branch not in the fire, I impaled the fish and held it over the growing flames.
The skin charred, the meat hissing, I withdrew the fish and took my first bite. That afternoon, I surmised there is no more delicious fish than the common tuna.
That evening, hunched in the woods, my bowels evacuating, I surmised there is no fouler fish than the common tuna.
My bowels still aflame, I knelt and pleaded. “God, I repent! I repent of my ways! Please, let me return to Rhode Island and live the life of an honest man!”
The wind rustled in the trees behind me.
I fell sideways into the sand and cried myself to sleep.
I grew weak three days later and could not keep my eyes open. I knew that I would die if I stayed. This was no divine retribution, at least none made by Providence. This was a predicament of my own making, and one I could surely overcome.
But I was too weak to even move.
The sun was setting behind the blue grove. My body shivered against the wind, and the coarse sand stung my eyes.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a shadow at the edge of the forest. I turned my head, the movement lasting an eternity. I felt a headache, the pain of which was even greater than God inflicted on the Egyptian firstborn. There at the tree line stood the Cymbid, waving its amber tendrils in my direction.
You are not a plant, I thought. You graze like deer in the forests of Rhode Island, though you may not taste as sweet. . . .
I rose, teetering. The Cymbid flinched away but did not flee or burrow into the ground. I saw the empty scabbard embedded in the sand where I had left it. I reached down, my balance nearly failing me, and picked it up, brandishing it like a club. I crept on uncertain legs, step by step, so as not to disturb what could be my dinner tonight. It did not flinch.
I swung the scabbard down on it.
The tendrils shot forward, stinging my hands. The black, vaselike body shuddered, and some unseen limbs began to burrow into the sand below. I grabbed hold of the tendrils, pulling against its digging limbs.
The tendrils snapped.
I fell back. The Cymbid burrowed its body halfway by the time I got back to my feet. I threw myself at it with an energy I did not know I had. I pulled at it like I would a turnip, if the turnip were wont to burrow on its own free will. I prayed to God the Cymbid tired before I did.
Just as I felt my grip loosening, the Cymbid stopped.
I rose, panting and leaning against the half-buried Cymbid. I searched for a branch sharp enough to cut with. I found one within reaching distance: the branch which I had roasted the tuna on several days ago. The Cymbid’s skin felt like the flesh of a pig when I gripped it. I guessed, given enough time and pressure, that the branch would cut it.
I pushed the pointy end in. A sulfurous black liquid spurted forth, covering my blue-and-white-striped shirt and trousers. The fountain of black blood rose and fell, rose and fell, until it did not rise again.
The sun had not yet risen when I awoke the next day. The remains of the Cymbid laid beside me, a mass of tangled entrails like the inside of a squash, the tough skin cut roughly and thrown aside. My belly was full, my body warm despite the wind.
I knew then I had the strength to leave this place.
I ran up the beach, a wellspring of energy rising within me from some unknown source. I did not need to gather branches for a raft. The flesh of the Cymbid inside me would make me buoyant; all I would need is a spear to keep the sharks at bay. I found one of a suitable length, reaching from my left palm to my right, and I broke off the end into a jagged point.
I jumped into the ocean and swam.
I drank from the sea, despite knowing the madness that would ensue if I did. But the seawater tasted fresh to me, and I swallowed countless times of it, until I could taste the seaweed and dead fish in my throat. I did not mind.
I slept once, after I had lost sight of the strange beach where I had washed ashore, and when I awoke I found the stars had resumed their normal constellations. My heart lightened. I continued to swim, following the sunsets, hoping to reach Hispaniola before my energy left me.
I did not need to make it so far. The sun set low against the horizon, I spotted a small fishing boat, the Coño, doubtless crewed by Spaniards. I knew a little Spanish, so I could talk to them.
Their helmsman spotted me, and the ship came alongside as a sailor cast a rope ladder down. I sank under, then rose out of the water like those dolphins that follow ships, grabbing the bottom rung of the ladder and pulling myself up. The crew seemed eager to pull me up on the deck, but once they had, they all gave me a wide berth, their mouths agape.
Their captain, a man as weathered as a figurehead, came forward. “What kind of devil are you?” He asked in Spanish.
“Devil? I am a man, sir!”
“You are a blue devil with amber hair, sir, and I will not abide you on my ship!”
It was then that I looked at my arms. What once had been the light color of the people of the Colonies was now the indigo of the Cymbid’s vaselike body. I pulled a lock of my hair in front of me. My once blonde locks were now colored amber.
The Captain pulled his matchlock and leveled it at me, and the crew brandished clubs and cleavers. I did not shut my eyes.