“Well isn’t that the saddest story you ever saw?” Ern said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, making his swallow tattoo glisten in the icy sun.
And in truth it was. We’d been gone six weeks now, and we hadn’t seen a single soul for two of them other than ourselves. The saddest story he was talking about was just a fur seal alone on the ice. I didn’t know why it was the saddest story I have ever seen, but I felt it was at the time. It was 1937.
Cabin boy aboard the Polar Chief was my first ever job. My father had sent me from Newcastle to Oslo when I was fourteen, and from there I made my own way for work… the Polar Chief just happened to be the ship that was docked at the time. I didn’t think it was anything special when I saw her, but apparently she was a converted passenger ship… the very same one that Dr. Crippen was caught aboard when he fled to America after killing his wife. The ship was long, four masts and one funnel in the centre. The hull might have been black once, instead it was now a grey-green from the swill of the sea. The crew (bar a few Scottish) were all from Norway, and didn’t speak a word of English.
The nights were always short. The sky was an oil blood red that looked like a gutting knife had been drawn across it like a murdered fish, splaying itself for as long as you could see, though it was always fine by morning. In every direction water stretched to the ends of the earth, ending only when the sky was ready to begin and take on the cobalt livery of its counter-part. Ern the Scotsman swung from the hatch door and told me to come under for the night, ruffling my hair as I passed him. I had gotten used to the tight walls below deck that ebbed and stuck around me, though the to and fro of the sea beneath still caught me sometimes, and the Viking crew would laugh and growl at me kindly.
While the moon shone hard outside, and the starry teeth of the wind bit into the bow of our course for Antarctica, the crew hid beneath the shell of the ship, warmed by the electric heart-like hum and pulse of the burner lamps. I sat in the corner with the three Scots; they spoke in a language almost as enigmatic as the Vikings. I watched the crew in the room laugh and sup their whiskey, throwing their hands to suit the words of their story. The drinks in front of them cowered like a disobedient dog, running from their calloused sea-worn hands with each sway of the sea beneath them, and returning moments later looking sorry for ever having left. Ern nudged me in the side and handed me a cup of coffee, oily, smell sticking in my nose, I still don’t drink it to this day.
“Here yer are wee Wilson.” Ern said, his hand shooting up from the bottom bunk and passing me a small glass bottle with some fluff inside. “I bought it in a flea market few years back in Cape Town; you look like ya could do with it more than I could to be sure.” His words crept round the sides of my bunk from beneath, all the nouns and verbs still wearing a coat of coffee to make it through the freezing room.
“… cheers Ern.”
“Ern… what is it?” I whispered when I knew he was fully satisfied with confusing me.
“… I was told it’s a shrunken man trapped in a bottle…” His eyes began to peer from the side of the bunk of the bed “…His names Mr. Grimm”. Holding the bottle up to the spotlight porthole, the moon shone through its contents, her silver fingers picking at the out-of-fashion brown suit of a small man about the length of an index finger. The tiny man bore a great grey beard reaching down to his bare feet, and also what must have once been a bright red scarf coiled round his neck and mouth. “The man at the market told me about how he had found it left behind in a bag that belonged to some German whaler. It also came with this note.” His swallow tattoo seemed to glow as he passed the yellowing note it to him.
A cursed and shrunken man within,
The fated life of Mr. Grimm.
Cut down in size to tame his fire
And trapped to cull his monstrous ire.
Reward is luck and peace be kept
Beware release or luck bereft.
“Do you believe this Ern? I mean, a tiny man trapped in a bottle, because he’s too angry to let out?”
“It’s all we have Wilson, when you’re at sea, superstitions and tales. I’ve never dared open that bottle in the 14 years I’ve had it, but it’s always brought me luck. Never tempt fate Wilson, that’s all I’ll say.” Ern shuffled beneath and plumped his pillow ready for sleep.
“Thanks Ern… and goodnight.” I whispered, wrapping my fist around the small bottle and placing it beneath my pillow, only to take it out and look at it three or four times throughout the night before finally falling asleep.
That night I dreamt of the dreams I had had every night up until this point. Every night being aboard the Polar Chief the dreams would switch and cut from my own, bobbing and weaving between the footsteps of the dreams of the forgotten passengers and crew. The Captain and his scarred right hand which he kept in a glove… how one day he would repay the favour. Dr. Crippen caught screaming as he is pulled from the arms of his mistress. Ern’s wife sitting on top of his knee while he would tell her the tales of the sea, and how he would always return unharmed if she promised to pray for him at the shore every Sunday. Or the two pennies she and her son had kissed just in case. Then back to my own dreams. The sea could have been sand, it could have been grass or clouds, and we were nothing but floating hunters looking to make the year’s wage. The harpoon that would flag the beasts of the deep and then the chase! A foreign tongue unheard, or the new land unfound… that’s what the boys spoke of back home and here he was with the dream in his small hands, still soft from the kisses of his mother.
“Wilson… Wilson! Våkn opp gutten, kle og våkne opp NÅ!” A Viking stood screaming at the side of my bed, and then he smiled, tipping the bunk as he did so. Everything fell to the floor in a crash, and the small glass bottle smashed near my head. Scooping my arm and leaving me to dress the Viking ran towards the roar of men above deck to lend his hands. The pap and plume of the machinery working hard beneath my feet intensified as I felt the wall of rain and wave’s crash at the keel of the Polar Chief without mercy. The men inside the room all became magnetised to the surface, powered with steam and fire within a single twitch of time. Donning my furs and crawling up the gangway, the whir of noise faded as a bomb would before it strikes, then sharply, sound returned and dashed at my eardrums as I reached the last step, sending torrents of salty brine through me.
On deck, I could see a spotlight from the rear mast search and plunder at the solid bleak curtain of sea that surrounded us, blotted out at times by rain that seemed to fall from above, the side and even below. The crew fought with bowlines and harpoons, pointing and screaming, searching for the epicentre of the sounds; a low rumble that would have had dogs pawing for meat, sea dogs would have to do. That noise… like cogs, over worked and rusting from want of oil, crashed together with a wail, like a machine it struck harsh chords all around the Polar Chief as we lay vulnerable and dimly aglow at the heart of the ice kingdom, burning for answers in the darkest hour of night. Something rose from the deep.
“Whale!” A Viking pointed from the side of the ship.
“Starboard!” screamed the captain, surveying the imminent war of man vs. beast. He clung to the metal rail with his one gloved hand. I thought a smile may have flashed across his face for a time… but in fact it was just that the rain had brought with it the glow of lightning, and the growls of thunder simply mashed with the growls of the beast from the deep. The men rushed to the scene with their harpoons and flags of hunger. They hovered over the side rails of the Polar Chief and eyed the icy rain speckled waters, hoping for a sign of their catch. They searched for a glimmer of treasure in the black abyss.
Then, as the lightning struck, and the captain screamed, and the rain ran from the scene and Ern kissed his two pence and motioned a gesture across his torso to show he had lost all hope. It all stopped, the night was for the first time quiet… and that was all. The crew, tentative, chanced a glance at one another, and their grip tightened in the frozen rails. They seemed to look inside themselves for the wanting courage they had joked about in the previous nights, but none of them dared speak, instead choosing to swallow what words they may have formed. I even let out a slight breath of cool fog in those moments.
In the moment it takes for lightning to strike a metal antenna, it rose from the dead and soulless sea, a ghost, a beast… a monster. In a moment, pure white water burst upright and crooked from the sea, dragging the ship away with it along the waves. It grew from the deep; a screech preceded it so loud a few of the Vikings fell to the floor in agony, cradling their ears and writhing on the sopping deck. A large island began to form from the crushing waves, bare, smooth metal rose ten… twenty feet and more. And then eyes, was it a face? Large round eyes shone brighter than any star in its night background. The beast, this metal man stood tall and towered the Polar chief. Where its mouth should have been a metal plate had been cast along in its stead. Growing larger and larger the beast screeched again so fierce Ern collapsed straight to floor like a heap of graveyard soil, his arms and legs stuck solid in the air from fright. Petrified.
The metal man fully formed now strode forward, pushing millions of gallons of sea ahead of him. Once more we were pushed aside by the tremulous waves the beast made in his march; he barely seemed to see. He conquered the sea with ease.
Sprayed with water and almost half sunk and half dead with fright, we, the few men of the Polar Chief watched as this shining metal man cut through the night sky’s horizon like a powerful locomotive steaming ahead north. We stood and watched the monster disappear into the night. The captain instead chanced a toothy smile, swinging the Polar Chief around and back to life he set a course directly in the direction the beast had just left. His glove now gone, he let his scarred and red skeletal hand reach inside his fur jacket… when he drew it back out again, all he held was a pistol.