April 2, 1920
It was a clear morning off the New England coast–approaching the southerly latitudes of Maine, if memory serves–and though the waves were calm, April’s lingering chill had yet to pass on, crawling, it seemed, up the sides of my boat, around my ankles and settling uncomfortably, like some odious shawl, about my shoulders. I had sailed north only recently, having spent the winter fishing down in the Gulf, and the swift return to my summer grounds–premature, for a bout of restlessness I now vehemently cursed–had left me as yet poorly acclimated to the northern spring and robbed of any enthusiasm for the productive use of my location. In my shivering solitude that morning I had cast two lines, and though I’d gotten bites on neither, I was having difficulty mustering the will to bait a third. I recall it was in that fraught quiescence that I took notice of the irregularity surfacing some forty yards off the port bow.
To my first glance it seemed like jetsam or some other detritus, having the texture of maritime vehicularity without a form I could identify as any particular boat, but as more of the mass emerged above the waves, my befuddlement became something more akin to awe. My previous confusion in identifying the object, it seemed, had lay in my assumption that its form would be singular when, in fact, it was comprised of numerous vessels and the pieces thereof. Before me were hulls of dinghies, canoes, fishing boats, shattered boards and beams lashed haphazardly against great sheets of black rubber in a jumbled ellipsoid that, from far off, might have been mistaken for the carcass of some colossal leviathan. For all the strangeness, though, of this great, nautical garbage heap, I still found myself ill-prepared for the sign that then surfaced on its carapace–glowing red neon, proclaiming it to be The Nicholas–or the concrete suburban front porch, flanked by flaccid strands of potted seaweed, which emerged beneath it. Even as the door of the porch slammed open, and a ragged man stepped out and hurled a bucket of something foul into the ocean between us, I could only stare, speechless. Ultimately, it was he who called out to me:
“Aye, laddie! Watsonismouth?!”
I shook myself awake. Being then unable to place either the man’s accent or the meaning of his query, I called out as much and motored over on the supposition that proximity might serve to make better order of the situation.
He clarified as I drew closer: “Sonny, let meh ask ya ferst: What’s in ya mouth?” I might have guessed his previous call had been delivered in some dialect of the British Isles, but now his accent had drifted westward, seeming suddenly more appropriate for a denizen of the Carribean (and, I will admit, suggesting an origin I would never have guessed from his appearance). Beyond the vagaries of his delivery, though, I was also rather bewildered as to the substance of his inquiry. My mouth was quite empty, for though I normally partook of a smoke at this hour, I had dropped my pipe somewhere on the deck, amidst the shock of his vessel’s emergence, and had since lost track of it. I indicated as much to him in my reply.
“No, son,” he clarified in an abrupt Mississippi drawl. “It’s a mattah of circumnavigation. We’s tryin’ to get at what’s in ‘eez maouth, an if yer knowin’ what’s in yer maouth, then that’s a tack on the chart, ‘cause what’s in yer maouth properly ain’t in ‘eez maouth, ya see?”
I did not. I inquired–skeptically, for I was growing increasingly certain that this man was in something of an unpredictable state–as to whose mouth we were investigating.
“Not whosemaouth, son. ‘Eezmaouth. Like beezmaouth, if’n ya know the rock, ‘cept withaout that certification of a job done at the utmost pinnacle o’mediocrity.”
The conversation had, at this point, attained the clarity of a bayou, and my only remaining answer was a blank stare. He shook his head sadly.
“It iss clear to me”–his accent was now that of the Mexican fishermen I’d dealt with so frequently in the Gulf–”dett we fall on fundamentally different sides. No matter. Diss iss not a sorpraiss. Do you haf any feesh?”
Alas, I did not have much in the way of a catch. I’d trawled no nets since arriving up north, and I’d no plans to do so for a few days yet. I had a pair of mackerel I’d caught the previous day, but that was it, I told him.
“Oh, don’tcha know dere’s nuttin’ to be ashamed of, young feller. I’m just lookin’ for a bite ta’eat is all.”
It sounded like Upper Midwest to me. Minnesotan, perhaps? It also occurred to me that despite the man’s graying, unkempt beard and repeated references to me as a young man, he did appear, in all other respects, to be at least twenty years my junior. Befuddled, still, but acclimating to the ersatz temperature of the conversation, I offered him one of my mackerel, which he eagerly accepted, biting–rather aggressively–into the fish’s flesh right there on his vessel’s concrete gangway. Then, shouting something about “makin’ you rich” through a full mouth and what sounded like an American’s (decidedly poor) impression of an Australian accent, he dashed back through his door, leaving me to the continued ponderance of the monument to madness which was The Nicholas.
In his absence, I began to notice a number of unsettling details lodged in the crevices of its unsound construction: Marionettes, features scrubbed clean by brine, dangled among the mishmash of hulls and rubber, alongside inscriptions and engravings in those surfaces in alphabets I did not recognize even from Dr. Sterling’s texts on the Oriental scripts. Place to place, I could see protrusions from the rubber that looked like the spiraled horns of narwhals, and just past the threshold of the vessel’s “front door,” I saw hanging vines and foliage as if within were some dark jungle separated by unnatural, great distances from the semi-boreal sea where we drifted that morning in truth. These items were, of course, in no way sinister, and I had no means of rationally justifying the fear for my soul which I felt there, in silent anticipation of the man’s return, except, perhaps, for the vessel’s unignorable suggestion to me that rationality had ceased, in this circumstance, to be a meaningful boundary. However, my fear passed unactualized, and the man soon returned, heaving over to me a bulky canvas sack.
“My recommendation,” he said to me, all pretense of brogue or twang gone from his voice, “is that you bring that to an office of the United States Navy. They will pay you for it. Or pay you to keep quiet. Or both. Please pass on that it arrives to them courtesy of Captain Kneecap.”
With that, he disappeared back across his threshold, and, his door scarcely closed, The Nicholas dropped rapidly beneath the waves, the shock of which rocked my own boat violently. Once I steadied myself, both physically as well as from the emotional disturbance of “Captain Kneecap’s” presence, I examined the contents of his gift to me.
Inside was something I found appalling, though not to the exception of an urge to examine its nature. It was a body, headless, human-shaped, though clearly not human, for it was comprised not of flesh but of some metallic substance resembling steel but impossibly light for its bulk. Between its noticeably elongated fingers and toes was webbing of a material I could not identify, and though they had been torn from it, I saw sheared joints on its arms, legs, and spine where fins might have once attached.
I did not know what to make of the corpse-mannequin, but if the Captain’s words were to be taken with even the slightest skepticism, there was nothing there for me to glean. I was to be an intermediary in a conversation to which I desired precisely no connection. Though I hesitated at the thought of the Captain’s promised riches passed over, I threw that “gift” back into the ocean that day. The Nicholas was perhaps not the strangest thing I have ever seen upon the water, but I hope all the same that I never see her or the Captain Kneecap again.