The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Homunculus

 

I wake covered in ice. It crusts my lips, hangs in silvery pins from my sleeves, turns the crimson velvet of my coat gray and frosty. My gaze twitches to the left, to the right, my eyeballs shifting with a delicate cracking sound beneath their sheen of frost.

I am sitting at a table. A feast is spread before me, and the lace at my throat seems to strangle me, stiff with cold. Moonlight streams over my shoulder, glimmering on the silverware, milky through the window-glass.

I cannot recall where I am. I cannot recall who I am. Not even my own name.

Again I twitch, fissures opening in the frost on my back and across my shoulders. I am on a ship. I must be. I see the curved walls, the iron stove, bolted securely to the floorboards. I am in the captain’s dining room. Ice covers the rich fruits before me, dusts white the cornucopia of apples and cherries, walnuts, lemons, plums, like crystal sugar. The carved ham is furry with cold, the dark wood of the walls and the furnishings dulled, as if viewed through a gossamer veil.

My eyes swivel downward. A book lies open beneath my fingertips. It is the captain’s logbook, though I am certain I am not the captain. It lies open to the final page. My fingertips stick slightly to the parchment. I do not trust myself to move, but I turn my eyes downward further and read the words that loop, thin and spidery, across the page:

August 17th, 1674 

This weather is cursed. It is deepest summer and yet there is only wind and sleet and misery.  It is that thing’s fault. They said: you shall be quicker this way. They said: two trips in the time of one, you will be rich!  But they lied. They wished to be rid of it. We will be lucky if we survive the month.

I cannot have a moment’s peace. It follows me everywhere, and I hardly dare venture on-deck, for the looks I receive from the crew are black as hate. They blame me, though it is not my fault.

I must end this. A monster walks in our midst, silk-tongued and smiling. I am the captain. I am the captain! I will end this, I swear it-

The writing halts. The next page unfurls, blank and empty.

The words sink slowly into my sluggishly awakening mind. And suddenly I recall dates, names, images, all in a sharp, painful flash: I am on-board the Homunculus, voyage 834 across the Northwest Passage from China to London, carrying a cargo of tea. I was the physician. Or was I simply a passenger? I still cannot remember. And I recall nothing of a monster. Somewhere in far off days I heard tales of such things: kraken and sirens and shape-shifting birds who fly down from the sky wrapped in feathers, but land on the deck dressed in a waistcoat and silver-buckled shoes. Mayhap we have been accosted by one such. Mayhap it is still here.

I am beginning to thaw. Water pools on my cheeks and drips from the end of my nose. My hair crinkles, falling in frozen strands across my forehead. I stand, releasing from my wooden chair with a crack, and look around me, hunched, shivering.

All is silent. Across from me, at the other end of the table, a figure  sits a great dark form, stiff in his chair. He too is frozen. It is the captain. The writer of the warnings. His plumed hat is pulled low, a wide black brim hiding his face.

I move slowly around the table, and I see he is holding a flintlock, clenched in his lap, his finger already hooked around the trigger. I look into the captain’s eyes. They are wide-open, stenciled with delicate patterns of frost. But beneath it I can still see the rage: the hate.

I shudder and circle slowly around the back of his chair. A cabin boy sits in the corner of the room, curled up as if he sought to hide from something. His eyes closed, stitched up with snowy lashes. I look again at the captain,  terrified. A single pearl of water forms upon his nose. Stretches. Drops.

He is thawing too. His eyes twitch toward me.

I jerk back, ice cracking up my sleeves, rattling to the floor in shards. I do not know why I fear him, but I do. There is something unnatural underway here, something too dreadful for the minds of man. I hurry for the door, stagger down a short passage, burst out onto the deck. . .

The entire ship is wrapped in snow, emanating like a starburst from the room I have just left. The masts are broken. Men stand on the deck, leaning over the edge, and though their mouths are wide and their eyes open, their tongues are covered in snow, and icy barbs extend from their backs in whatever direction the wind blew. Something knocks against my foot. I look down and see it is a leg, a gray stump upon the deck. I peer upwards.

His name was Cowlick. The man in the crow’s nest. I remember him, too, now. He is still there among the rigging  all of him but his leg  swinging in in the wind like a gruesome flag.

Fear grips me. I run to the balustrade, peer over it into the mist.

A wind is whipping about my ears, and as the ice on my clothing melts it begins to freeze me anew, bitterly cold. The ship is becalmed, stoppered up in a cracked circle of snow and ice. Beyond it I see the black waters of the ocean, ice caps rearing up like drooping nightcaps.

What has happened here?

A sound reaches beneath the wind and into my ears, the creak of wood. I do not know where it comes from, but it fills me with dread. And then, through the mist, I see a light approaching, a lantern, perhaps upon another boat.

I cannot remain. This ship is cursed. Perhaps they will take pity on me. I snatch up a coil of rope from the deck and loop it around the mast. I clamber over the balustrade, letting myself down the side of the ship. The beads of ice in my hair knock against each other like wind chimes, stiff ropes of grease and cold. I reach the snow, stagger, and begin to run toward the edge.

“Hello?” I call out. “Mercy! I am shipwrecked!”

The light in the fog continues on its course a moment, and the water laps gently inches from my feet. Then the light pauses, turning, and begins to slide toward me. It is a ship, then, and they have heard me. My heart hammers against my ribs. The ship emerges from the fog, a great sodden boat, greenish at first, the single lantern creaking like a single golden eye from its figurehead. The figurehead is a woman with the head of a wolf, teeth bared, eyes narrowed. I watch the boat approach, see figures darting on the deck, leaning over the balustrade. The prow of the ship strikes our little shelf of ice and rocks it. Behind me, the Homunculus creaks, shuddering. I fall to one knee, my hands burying themselves in the snow.

“Take the rope!” someone shouts. The ship is towering over me, a monolith of black shuttering out the moon. In the next instant, the knotted end of a coil strikes me in the face. I snatch it, my fingers trembling. I let it pull me toward the edge, and then I kick my legs out and begin to make my way up the steep side of the ship. I look back over my shoulder. The Homunculus looks like a child’s plaything, forsaken. Something is stirring on her deck: a figure hulking from the aft tower, spinning, staring about him across the deck.

I hear a voice follow me up, a deep rumbling.

“Hurry!” I shout up, and my voice echoes in this forsaken expanse, a tiny, high screech. “I beg you, hurry!”

The rope begins to jerk upwards faster, pulling the wind from my lungs. I reach the railing and arms loop over it, dragging me onto the deck. Faces peer down at me, awed and frightened, and I wonder if it is from my appearance that startles them, or that I am alive at all.

“What happened?” they ask me, and I know my eyes are wide, fevered, but I cannot help it.

“We must get away,” I hiss. “Leave here!”

The captain, a young fellow, flint-eyed and strong-jawed, eyes me a moment. He snaps something over his shoulder in a language I feel I should understand but do not entirely.

The boat begins to creak. I hear the water giving way against its side, cradling us and carrying us away. I drag myself to my feet and peer over the railing.

“What year is it?” I ask over my shoulder.

“1699,” the first mate replies, perplexed. “April.”

1699. We have been drifting, frozen across the ocean, for thirty long years.

A gap of water is widening between the boat’s prow and the ice-shelf, and a figure approaches across the snow, that huge black shape from the ship’s dining room.  He is stumbling slowly, leaning upon a bit of broken mast. The fog is beginning to close again, the little silent island of ice losing itself again in the darkness. The captain waves his flintlock and I hear a call through the wind, a desperate, small cry.

“Faster!” I shout over my shoulder. “Away!”

I see people moving on the Homunculus’s deck now, hear the wail of Cowlick as he wakes without his leg, and hear the captain screaming: “Save us! Leave the wicked creature! He will be the end of you!”

But the crew of this new ship does not hear them. The fog closes and they are gone.

I turn away, slumping against the wood. Beneath my coat, I notice that there my red slippers are oddly turned, as though my feet have been broken, my ankles grotesquely bent. I draw out my hand from beneath my arms and I see feathers where fingers should be, fruit for nails, twigs for bone, wax for skin. I blink, shut my eyes tightly. When I open them, my hand is that of a man’s again. The captain is watching me.

I watch him back, memories flooding like dark water across me, a storm of roiling clouds through my skull. Does he suspect what I am? Ah well. I am good at surviving. I sat in the dining room of the Homunculus and read the captain’s scribbled words, and when he entered, trembling, he pretended he did not know. But I did. He wanted to shoot me, to be rid of me, and I could not allow that. There was a white flash, a flood of ice spreading away from me, freezing everything living upon that boat, and everything not, for 30 long years.

The young captain is still watching me, his eyes sharp. I smile at him, my lips flicking back across my teeth.

I do so enjoy traveling.

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