This first story was written in 1987 or 88 and was actually published in our college magazine in 1989 in abridged form. This is the full version, as I envisioned and wrote it when I was 25 years old.
THE SEA OF THE DAMNED
A SHORT STORY
Lewis B. Smith
Well, Don, I think a divisional deep-sea fishing trip sounds like a fine idea, but I’m not going and that’s final. I’ll even help chip in for beer and bait if you like, but I won’t show up. Sorry. I don’t go to sea in small boats, not since – well, never mind that. I’m not going!
Yes, I’ve been deep sea fishing before, three times, in fact. And I enjoyed the first two trips very much. But after that last time – no! I don’t even like getting underway with the ship, although a destroyer is big enough – and fast enough – to be safe. I hope.
Safe from what? I’d better have another beer if I’m going to tell that story! You should, too. It’s nothing to hear or tell while sober. Thanks, that’s good. Something about that fog outside makes even this nasty Korean beer taste good.
Now – remember last year, when we ran into that heavy fog off Tabones and I wouldn’t go topside for anything? This incident is most of the reason why. I don’t even like to go out on land anymore if there’s a thick fog out. ‘It creeps in on little cat’s feet -’ that poet hit the nail on the head, you know it? Fog makes everything so . . . indistinct. That’s it! It blurs our perception of reality. That’s why I’m here inside this scroungy bar getting drunk instead of walking back to the ship – because of something that happened eleven years ago. That long? Man, it still seems like yesterday.
My Dad liked to go deep-sea fishing every year or two, and the past couple of times I’d been old enough to go along. Needless to say, I was excited, because this year there were some fifteen of us in the party, and we’d managed to charter a small boat all to ourselves – nice little trawler she was, too. We pulled up to that pier at Galveston harbor and began to unload our things at four o’clock in the morning, stars shining bright overhead and gulls shrieking at each other all along the bay. There was a dead catfish floating by the dock, sickly-white and bloated, eyes staring up. Funny how things like that can work their way into your head and stay there whether you want them to or not, isn’t it? They even get into your dreams, and you wake up at night ten years later with them staring you in the face.
It hadn’t even begun to get light in the east yet when we shoved off. I can still hear the steady thrum of the engine and the slap of the waves on the side of the boat as we moved out of Galveston Bay with the gulls hovering over us like hungry vultures. We were supposed to go ninety miles out, but we never got that far – not out to where the snapper beds are – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Being fifteen years old and restless, I went up to the bow and watched the piers and buoys and other ships as we went past them. It was flat calm out, and I got bored with that rather quickly, so I helped one of the crew – an old Mexican named Miguel with only three front teeth left – pass out the bait. It was squid – whole ones about six inches to a foot in length. They had them in five gallon plastic buckets, and we dumped them into troughs that ran along either side of the ship, so that you could stand at the rails and reach down to bait your hook, y’know. They made a slushy pouring noise, like a cadaver’s organs being dumped into a mortician’s slop bucket. Funny how your mind will think up comparisons like that when you’re not even fully awake, innit?
It was just starting to get light when we hit the fog – a big thick bed of it, rising like a solid wall in front of us. The skipper said it was a normal thing to encounter this time of year, just a bit thicker than usual. Then he steered us straight into it. My throat’s getting dry, Don. Let’s have another drink!
That fog fascinated me, but I didn’t like it. None of the crew seemed to, either. But it still held me there by the rails, staring out at it, like a snake would hypnotize a sparrow before it struck, you know? A fatal attraction.
It was a thick, clingy fog, one that gripped your lungs nice and tight when you breathed it in, and held on when you tried to exhale. And the stench – ugh! It was like all the slimy rottenness at the bottom of the ocean had come to the surface there. There was a kind of sentience about it, too, if you know what I mean. Hostility – like normal, living, breathing human beings didn’t belong in this particular stretch of water.
There were other things, too. The sounds, for one – I tried to tell myself that it was just the seagulls shrieking, muffled and distorted by the fog – but no damned bird ever made a sound like that! And there were shapes, too – big looming things that passed us on either side. They never really got close enough for me to make out what they were through the fog, and I was relieved by that. Once something – I don’t know what it was and don’t want to – surfaced just in front of us, slimy and luminous, and made a gurgling noise like the air leaking out of a dead man’s lungs as it swam away. Another drink, bartender!
Listen, Don! There are certain places on this civilized world of ours where sane me shouldn’t go. I remember when I was seven years old my grandad owned about five hundred acres of virgin timber in deep East Texas. He used to say that he’d come back and haunt the first man who ever laid an axe to one of those trees. Then one day my aunt and uncle went out hunting in this forest, and my uncle came back alone, pale-faced and wide eyed. The next day my grandad sold the land out to the local timber company, and within three weeks virtually every bit of those woods had been cut down and hauled off. Grampa didn’t last out the year, and my uncle has been a drunk and a junkie ever since. Only once has he ever said anything to me about that day, and he was stoned out of his gourd at the time. I mentioned the old woods to him, and he looked at me and said as clear as you please: “What would you do if a slimy pink lizard the size of a bull gator burst out of the ground and ate your wife right before your eyes?”
Whether or not that’s what really happened I don’t know, but the point I’m making is that there are things and places on this earth no man can begin to understand. This fog bank was one such place.
We’d been in it for better than an hour – closer to two, maybe – when we heard a bell ringing. It was a ship’s bell, the kind small boats ring in the fog so they don’t run into each other, only this one was clanging like mad. Suddenly we hit a clear patch in the mist, and there it was in front of us – a beat up old fishing trawler. What, this glass is already empty? Another round, barkeep!
This trawler was drifting aimlessly in the clear patch, a wall of fog on every side, and I could see the crew in the rigging and on the deck, waving at us. One of them was frantically pulling on the bell-rope, making the sound that had drawn our attention. A tall man in blue dungarees and a stained white turtleneck stepped forward.
“Ahoy there!” he shouted. “We’re adrift. Can you give us a tow?”
“As soon as I figure out how to get out of this frazzlin’ pea soup I’ll tow you all the way to Galveston,” replied our skipper. He brought us alongside the trawler and asked who’d go over with him to assess the situation. Dad and I volunteered immediately. The captain of our boat scowled a bit at me going, being a kid and all, but we were paying for the trip, so he couldn’t really tell us no – especially if he was planning on returning to port early.
The first thing I noticed on the strange vessel was that the smell of rot which had risen from the sea was much stronger around it. Me and Dad and the skipper jumped across onto her decks, and the master of the stranded vessel walked across the planks to meet us. He gave me the creeps. I don’t know what it was – he looked normal enough, a friendly, bluff sort of guy, like a lot of commercial fishermen you meet along the Gulf. But there was a hunger in his eyes I didn’t like – and something else, too. The air around him seemed distorted – kind of bent, like those optical illusions at the fair, y’know. I got the impression that if I reached out and grabbed him, what I felt might not be what I saw. But of course I didn’t do that – instead, I went over to the big bell that had called us through the fog.
It was shiny, like it was polished every day. I reached up my hand to pull the sturdy cord and give it a ring, but the cord felt cold and slimy in my hand, and fell apart like rotten seaweed. I backed up, startled, and looked at it again. To all appearances, it was a solid, if worn, length of rope. But it felt like something that had been rotting on the bottom of the ocean for years. Suddenly the smell of decay in the air intensified, and the echoes of the weird cries I had heard earlier came swarming around my ears like bees. I shook my head and went down the scuttle to see what was below decks.
I came out in the galley, and I paused there for a minute to look around. I could hear the conversation of the ship’s master and our skipper going on above my head.
“How long have you been adrift?” our captain asked.
“A powerful long time,” replied the other. “I’d begun to think we’d starve out here.” From where I stood it sounded like he was talking through a mouth full of seaweed – or blood.
I hopped off the ladder and looked around at the galley. It was a small space, with two tables and an ancient gas stove in the corner, and several cabinets bolted to the bulkhead above it. On the opposite wall hung a calendar and a pin-up of a woman who looked like Mae West or one of the other early film stars. I looked into one of the cabinets, but there was no food there – just a brown sludge that stank so bad it made my eyes burn. I backed away, gagging, and looked at the calendar. It showed the month to be September – of 1937!
I sat down weakly at one of the tables. How long had these men been adrift? What the hell kind of ship was this? Unable to figure any of it out, I rose and continued to explore. There was a hatch at the far end of the galley, so I walked over to it and tried to open it. The handle was stuck tight, so I yanked harder, and finally the hatch burst open. I saw – dear God, I need another drink before I can tell it!
It was a bunkroom, about a foot deep in stagnant seawater. I could actually see small fish swimming above the submerged deck. There was a poster on the far wall, but it was crumbling with age and rot. A rusting footlocker stood in one corner, lost in its own private world of deterioration. There were some soggy clothes scattered about, resembling huge slugs of some sort. Three of the hammocks had collapsed into the water, but the fourth – God, the horror of what was in that fourth one!
It had been a man, once, before death and the sea and hungry crabs had taken their toll. A few tufts of hair still clung to the withered scalp, and black, tarry flesh hung onto the bones, slowly sliding off. The remains of a yellow slicker and what might have been dungaree pants still clung to the gaunt form. I stared in shock, and then it moved – God help me, Don, that grinning death’s head with burning eyes turned its head and looked at me!
Then the whole room rippled – that’s the only way I can describe it. The scene distorted itself, and re-formed before my eyes. A kindly looking, white-bearded sailor hopped out of the hammock onto a cleanly swept wooden deck.
“Hullo there, young master,” he said. “You’ve got to watch the bad air down here. It’ll make you see things that ain’t so.”
I wanted to believe him – dear God, how I wanted to believe him! But I could see the hunger in those eyes, and choking back a scream, I turned and ran for the ladder. I scrambled up topside, that thing from hell on my heels. I emerged just in time to see them hooking up the tow line from our boat to this monstrosity.
“DON’T!!!” I screamed. “Get back to our ship! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!!”
The master of the demon ship turned, irritation clouding his false human features.
“Young man, we’ve been adrift for a long time,” he said smoothly. “Don’t you -”
“Don’t speak to me, you – you DEAD THING!” I shrieked hysterically – and for just a moment, the mask slipped.
A grinning, red-eyed skeleton stood facing me on the rotting deck of a long dead trawler. Then the scene rippled again, back to what it had been. But our skipper had seen the change, and he was dragging my father back towards our ship. I charged the sea-demon, and hit it hard with my shoulder. It was knocked back, hissing angrily. I ran for our ship – and slipped on a rotting pile of slimy ropes. I scrambled to regain my feet, but a horribly strong, bony grip held my ankle like a vise. I saw the demon face of that long-dead ship’s skipper grinning at me with a malice that wilted my spirit. It let out a hissing gurgle, slavering like a dog with a juicy bone in its mouth. I lashed backwards with my free foot as hard as I could, connecting with the thing’s lower jaw. To my horror, the jaw tore free of its rotten socket and skittered across the deck. The demon released me with an angry snarl, and I ran for it. I leaped across the gap between the two ships, and my Dad caught me with a shout of triumph.
“Get us out of here!” yelled our skipper, and the sailor at the helm complied gladly, bringing the ship about and gunning the engine with one smooth motion. We were running free, leaving that accursed place behind – then the tow line snapped taut and brought us to a grinding halt. The engine roared in lusty frustration as those demon things began pulling us back towards them, foot by foot, yard by yard.
Then they began laughing at us – oh, Don, that laughter has haunted my nightmares ever since! I pray to God each night that I will never hear it in my waking life again – gleeful, hate-filled, like a malevolent maniac heralding the death of his sanity! We were paralyzed by that mocking laughter as those monsters dragged our struggling ship backwards.
They had abandoned all pretense of humanity now, their eyes flaming like lava and their rotting limbs endowed with a strength that was nothing short of supernatural. Enraged that they could not live again, they seemed determined to feed on our hot blood, to taste that much of life at least.
“Cut the rope!” I screamed. “Please, somebody, cut the rope!”
But all the crew seemed rooted to the deck by that demonic mirth. With an effort, I reached for the fire-axe by the pilot shack. It was like wading through thick mud as I forced my way back aft, holding it above my head. With every bit of strength I had left – and it took it all – I raised it high and prepared to bring it down on that taut cable. Then that monster captain with jaw still missing gestured at me with one rotting claw, and all my strength and will left me. Before the axe could drop from my numbed hands, I cried aloud in despair: “Sweet Lord Jesus, NO!”
They blanched at the sound of that name, and for a few seconds power streamed down my arms like liquid fire. That instant was all I needed. With all the strength of sheer terror – and there is none greater, save maybe true love – I brought my axe down on the straining cable. It snapped, and the backlash struck my arm and sent me flying. My forearm was broken in two places, it later turned out. But at the moment all I heard was the roar of the engine as our freed boat shot ahead. I wept with relief and pain.
But then Miguel, whom I’d helped earlier, suddenly began trembling.
“Madre Dios!” he wailed. “The Sea of the Damned! Here they are stronger than us!”
Looking behind, I saw the ghost trawler looming out of the fog at an impossible speed, slowly but surely catching up on us as we raced through that nightmare fog. The demon-things were silent now, but a horrible luminescence surrounded their vessel. On through that hellish mist we raced; the fear of the living versus the malice of the dead. I don’t remember the race too clearly; I think I blacked out once or twice from the pain of my broken arm. But I do remember that every time I looked back, the dead ones were closer. I never lost sight of those scarlet eyes shining through the mist. Pour me another drink, Don!
Gradually our lead lessened, and I could hear their eager hissing as the gap between the ships diminished from yards to mere feet. Miguel was fumbling with his rosary beads and crying out to his saints, the crew stood, trying to look ready for a fight. Most of us passengers stood still, or sat and trembled. Dad knelt by me, and I held his hand tight. It’s a hell of a thing, Don, knowing that you are going to die at fifteen! And I was pretty certain that was exactly what was about to happen when the first of the sea-demons leaped across the water and onto the deck of our ship with an eager snarl. Miguel fainted, and Dad lifted the fire axe to defend me – I don’t think I ever loved him more than I did at that moment. I tried to melt into the deck’s planks, terror having a death grip on my mind – and then the two boats shot out of the fog and into the blinding light of a beautiful Gulf coast morning.
The skeleton-thing on our ship shrieked in pain, raising one claw to fend off the light even as it toppled over the side. Those on the dead trawler seemed to collapse with a series of audible snaps as the frail bones were robbed of the supernatural strength that had held them together and animated them in a horrible semblance of life. The main mast of the ghost ship cracked apart and collapsed onto the pilot shack, crushing it as the dead crumpled to the deck like collapsed puppets. Her deck planks buckled before our eyes, and I heard a huge rending sound as the straining keel of the ghost ship snapped in two. With a final frustrated hiss, the phantom trawler disappeared beneath the waves. As she did, I made out the lettering on a grime-encrusted placard on her fantail: the SS SNAPPER’S TAIL. Then she was gone, with only a lingering foulness in the air to show she had ever been there – and the hot coastal wind dissipated that pretty quickly.
“The Sea of the Damned,” breathed Miguel
“I’d laughed at your stories before, old man,” said our skipper, “but I believe them now.”
“In the Devil’s Fog, all the ships that have sunk return to the surface for a short time, senor,” said the old man. “They sail in a blind fog, trying to return to the world of the living – but find that they can only drag living men to their deaths.”
We all agreed to keep silent about the whole thing on our way back to port. Captain Thompson is the only other man who’s ever heard the story from me. I did a little research at the Galveston Library, though – the SS SNAPPER’S TAIL went down in a hurricane off Padre Island in 1937.
Let’s go now, Don. No, I can stand up by myself. Back to the ship it is . . . God, I hate this fog!