by Mark Dalligan
Five months out from Nantucket, with a hold full of oil and ambergris, the whaling ship Light of the World lay becalmed.
The crew, beards hardened by salt and bodies weary from fighting bad weather, sweltered in a relentless heat.
Elijah Jefferson, strong in his seventy-year old frame, swirled discoloured water in his glass. “Is it fit, Captain?” the Mate asked.
“Lazarus look at it! I’ve quaffed water as foul as Satan’s piss, but this is new to me.”
“The other barrels are the same.”
Elijah peered at the wriggling green threads. “Weevils in biscuit and maggoty beef are one thing, but I can’t in conscience give this to God-fearing men.”
“What else is there?”
As the Moon replaced the Sun, the crew kneeled at prayer.
“Help us, O Lord,” Elijah croaked.
There was no reply from Heaven.
At noon on the third day, reddened and wrinkle-skinned, the crew addressed the Captain through the Mate.
“The men feel there is no choice but to drink the water. They’d suffer a belly of dysentery to slake their thirst.”
Elijah sighed. “Truth be told, I’ve reached the same conclusion. We must be careful. One man should drink this morning and if he be alive when the sun sets, all shall drink.”
There was a rumble of discontent.
“Stay that! Take heed to the virtue of patience.”
Although it smacked of the iniquity of gambling, drawing lots was the democratic way.
There were thirty-nine lengths of straw, one for each crew member. Elijah forsook his chance of the suspect ambrosia, the cost of command.
On the third straw drawn, Obadiah Smith claimed victory. Tall and thin, he had sailed with Elijah for more than fifty years. The two were as similar in their views and convictions as a married couple.
“To you goes the duty, Obadiah,” Elijah said.
Lazarus dipped a cup into a wooden barrel, and passed it to Obadiah.
“Unappetising, but I must assuage my thirst.” he lifted the writhing green liquid to his mouth and swallowed. His countenance lightened.
“It’s as sweet and refreshing as the purest mountain spring. I don’t think I’ve tasted better. Here,” he held the cup out to the Mate, “I’ll have more.”
Elijah stepped between the two men. “Let’s see how it fares with the first glass.”
That morning and afternoon were overlong. The men watched Obadiah for any ill signs. Some cooled off by swimming in the sea, but it was a nervous activity. With full sail spread to catch the lightest breeze, if the wind got up the Light of the World might leap ahead, leaving them behind.
The sun was sinking below the horizon, when Obadiah began to cough, desperately. “Water, water for the love of the Lord.”
Elijah signalled for another glass but before the whaler could take it, his body burned incandescent, clothed in white flame.
Astounded, they threw a tarpaulin over him but this quickly turned to cinders. The very deck began to smoulder, dense black smoke hanging in the air.
Out of this inferno came not Obadiah but a green lizard-like monster with a serpentine neck.
“Back, you spawn of Satan!” Elijah cried, the crew rallying behind him, some gripping harpoons.
“Don’t you recognise me, Captain? It’s me, Obadiah,” the human voice came from the creature’s heavily toothed mouth.
“No, it’s just Obadiah, alive in this new body, and so alive!”
Elijah took up a harpoon.
“Get off my ship, Obadiah. Go to Hell, for which you are now fitted.”
“I’m going, but drink the water, salvation and new youth both, “ the creature advised. launching itself over the side and into the placid sea, roiling coils of fire igniting the night as it swam into the distance .
In the days after, individually or in small groups, the men gave into their thirst and followed Obadiah’s example.
Elijah couldn’t find it in his faith to join the strange exodus. Ultimately he spent a night weighing the probable reception in Heaven of a suicide undertaken to escape a worse fate. As dawn broke, he dropped a lantern into the hold of gathered oil.
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Dalligan