“A Darker Shade of the Earth” by Danny Brophy

A Darker Shade of the Earth

Teagan Crogan wiped the blood from his dagger and sheathed it, satisfied with the job he did gutting the rare fish on the table before him, and was prepared to cook it when he happened to glance out the port hole and spot the sails. Just near the horizon. A mere speck on the line between the deep blue of the ocean, and the hazed blue of the sky. Crogan sighed, popped the cork from his whiskey bottle, and took his first sip of the day, feeling the gooey warmness swarm through his innards. The fish would have to wait.

His boat twittered on the gentle waves and something clanked near the back. All these years, and Crogan proudly had not learn proper nautical terms. It did not matter what the back of the boat was called. It did not matter at all to him what anything was called. If you had something, like say a dagger or sword or boat, and you knew how to use it, what else was there to know? He walked along the deck, checking the sails and ropes and the anchor. No need to run off yet. The ship on the horizon, if it was who he thought, wouldn’t fire upon him.

He exited the cabin, stepped onto the deck. Against the boat edge, he found Cully, leaning, as he always was. Dried blood dribbled from the edges of a wide cut across Cully’s throat. The wound fluttered as he spoke. “Do you think it’s her?” Cully gave Crogan a cursory glance, and looked out upon the sea.

Toward the distant and approaching ship.

Crogan took another sip of whiskey. He long ago adapted to his drunkenness and the rocking of the sea against his boat. “Shut up.” He plugged up the bottle and set it against the deck. The waves sent the bottle against the boat edge. It rattled along until it stopped where Cully had stood.

The sun felt cold, brittle against Crogan’s skin. Soon he would have to make port somewhere, and abandon the sea for a time. There was only one place where he would do so. He gauged the direction by the wind, the waves, where the sun was. He fixed a few sails, not sure what exactly he was doing, but knowing what he was doing, and his boat began its journey toward his own private island.

He found it long ago, when he was more than what he made himself now. A night watch he took upon himself. It felt good to let his crew see and know that he was able and willing to take on the tasks one wouldn’t associate with a captain doing. He sat in the crow’s nest for a full night, keeping watch for patrols, other crews looking to maybe make the mistake of attacking Teagan Crogan’s boat, and spotted a lump in the Sea. He marked the direction, the place, the time, everything he had to know himself that didn’t require documentation as to this island’s whereabouts. Three years after that initial notice, he found his ship passing through this piece of sea again, and found his memorized coordinates correct.

The few times he had looked at maps, sea cartography, the island had been absent.

He took a landing boat to the island. A simple patch of land, a few trees, and a hole. The hole, a minuscule tunnel Crogan had difficulty shimming through, that led into a cathedral-like room. Cold, stone, and unknown to all the sea-faring denizens. He left a dagger that day.

Since then, he left gold, left jewels, anything taken from shipping boats, from aristocratic cruise liners, from other ships in the same business as he had been, but not as good as he was. When satisfied that he didn’t have to do anything anymore except wander the sea and drink, he did just that. He turned over his command. His ship, the Profio, still invoked fear in the other denizens of the sea, but he no longer was behind the helm. No longer was he telling his crew to raid that port, attack that ship, murder and pillage that liner.

Now, he was Teagan Crogan, and nothing more.

And the ship approaching his small boat, with its parts Crogan knew not what they were called, flew the same sails he helped stitch. Helped design. So that other ships when spotting it on the horizon would know damn well the Profio approached.

Crogan picked up the whiskey bottle and finished it. He ignored that a whole bottle wasn’t satiating him. He flung the bottle out over the sea, ignored where it landed.

A young boy without his left arm and covered in sores stood by one of the sail masts. Crogan had never got his name, because the young boy had done nothing but get in his way when he took the boy’s arm.

The boy said, “I’m drowning now.”

Sometimes, they said pertinent things. Sometimes, cryptic. Crogan mostly ignored what they said. He retreated to his cabin for another bottle. Three more and he would have to restock.

The fish head on the counter he’d crafted into the cabin’s wood flopped about, until its pale eyes looked upon Crogan. “They’ll bring you back. You don’t want to go back, do you. Of course you don’t. You want to stay out on the sea, don’t you. You want your island with its riches that no one gets to have, do you.”

Normally, Crogan thought as he ripped open the wrapping on the bottle top, unscrewed it, and took a healthy swig, they say a sentence and go the hell away.

The fish head flopped, to make sure it was having attention paid to it. “Stop over-thinking all this. You know what it is.”

Crogan swiped the fish head off the counter and stomped on it with a bare foot. He wiped the guts and blood off with a rag and went to his bedding quarters.

On his bed sat Cully. He picked at the hole in his head. “Zann wants you back.”

Crogan opened a chest he’d spent a bitch of a time fastening against the wall. “Figures.”

He tried the pale pants on. They hung so loose he had to cut a new hole in his belt. His shirt-top slunk over his right shoulder. He could double his weight and still have room in it. How had he let himself get so skinny?

As he slipped his boots on, Cully had gone. In his place was a woman. Long red hair that made Crogan think of the sun if it exploded. Her ears poked out of that hair. He could still feel how they felt on his fingertips. It made him chuckle ever so slightly. It was the first part of her he touched and…

Ahh. The pistol. Still had a shot ready to go. The powder had to be dry, still, but there was little time to test it. He was better with his sword anyway.

The woman was gone. Where had he put the whiskey?

The sword. Now, there was a bit of elegance. Sometimes, since retirement, idiotic crews would try boarding Crogan’s boat, thinking Crogan an old drunkard, drifting on the waves, his boat nothing more than adrift at sea to nowhere. Crogan couldn’t help his smile: like he would let a crew board him and hold him up and let it get to the point to where they’d find him an old drunk. Even when he would slice through them, doing nothing more than protecting himself, he found himself critiquing their methods.

If only they came at his boat from the direction of the sun; if only they had not announced to him that they were pirates and that they were taking everything on the boat; if only they had put forth a little effort besides simply robbing and taking and murdering.

For a while, when he first retired, it was how Crogan got supplies, scouring the ships of those who thought Crogan just a drunk.

He held the sword, thought of the amount of times he sharpened it on the insides of those less fortune and luck than he. Only a few scars adorned his withered brown skin. Those scars from his much younger days, before the Profio, before even Eva, the redhead with the ears, before his daughter, before when he thought himself a good swordsman before he became one.

Back on the deck, he drank from his bottle. It felt warmer out here. The clothes scratched at his skin. As he took another swig while gauging the distance of the ship, his old ship, some spilled out of his mouth.

No matter how long on the sea, sometimes it would throw a surprise at you. A simple wave, nothing more than a gentle nudge, had rocked his boat ever so slightly, causing the minute amount of whiskey to tumble from his mouth. He stuck his tongue out to retrieve the spent drops from around his lips.

He felt the hair, and put a hand to his face. By every god he ever heard of, how long had he let his beard grow out. He had a hard time finding his face.

His face. When had he seen it last. “Before you killed me.” Not his voice. He didn’t even turn to the cabin to look at the redhead with those striking ears. She had been coming around more and more.

And now his old ship approached. He judged it was within shooting distance. Not like it had the capacity to fire upon him. Still, it never hurt Teagan Crogan to be prepared, to be clothed, to have his pistol, to, most importantly, have his sword. Although, whatever good that would do now.

The Profio slowed until dropping anchor. Crogan had seen no one on board. No one operating the anchor. No one in the lookout nest. No voices, no sounds except the ship creaking, the anchor chains unspooling, the lap of waves against the battered hull.

Cully stood beside him. “You should go on board.”

Crogan sipped his whiskey. “It’s not there. Just like you.”

“Teagan Crogan!”

Another voice. From the Profio. Authoritative, brash, youthful. It sounded just like Crogan’s bark had when he commanded this ship that should not be here before him.

Cully disappeared. He never saw them just up and vanish. He would turn away from them, be it the boy, Cully, the woman…always gone when he looked back at them.

Teagan Crogan sipped more whiskey and unsheathed his sword. He held it by his side, blade edge away from his leg, the point resting on the deck.

“No need for that!” A chorus of laughter followed the authoritative voice. The laughter surrounded Crogan.

He sipped more whiskey. He let his sword drop and threw the bottle at the Profio. The bottle flopped end over end in an arc and shattered against the ship’s hull. The sound it made was as if Crogan had simply dropped it in the Sea.

More laughter. “As useless as that sword you so love!”

Crogan staggered at bit looking for where he dropped the sword. It had been right by his feet.

A plank extended from the Profio’s deck and slapped around in the water by Crogan’s boat until finding purchase on the deck. Despite nothing holding it there, the plank remained unmoved.

Crogan couldn’t find his sword. He reached for his pistol with its single shot. Enough of this. The copious amount of whiskey he’d consumed today had brought a sense of clarity to him. They had been coming more and more lately. Five years, he guessed. Five years drifting along the sea, enjoying a retirement no one in his old ways ever dared to have, because retirement for a pirate was impossible.

Pirate. That’s what he was. That’s what he had been. He always thought it such a silly word. Other crews rejoiced in calling themselves pirates. To Crogan, it was childish. It didn’t matter what he was called. His reputation on the sea was much more than a word.

The captain of the Profio walked along the plank connecting the ship and Crogan’s boat. Three holes crusted with blood across her chest marred an otherwise authoritative outfit. Crogan saw through the holes, could see the sky through them. When had he fallen to his knees? His mouth dried out, and he shivered.

The captain halted and saluted the kneeling Crogan. He didn’t return the salute. All he could do was squint from the sunlight.

The captain laughed as she completed the salute and said, in that authoritative, brash, youthful voice, “You never seem happy to see anybody anymore.” She removed her hat, and Crogan, who had sliced through countless people, had heard the cries of the dying and wounded, wanted to throw up.

The top of her head was gone. Sliced off or shot off, Crogan didn’t want to know or look to ascertain the answer.

The captain said, “Oh,” and rubbed a point of bone sticking out from the emptiness. “I take it you get no news out here.”

Crogan couldn’t look at her. He stared at a bit of wood that had splintered by the cabin. The redhead sat beside the bit of wood. All she ever did was stare.

The captain looked to where Crogan stared. “Mom never says anything, huh.”

Crogan wanted more whiskey. “She never did.”

“We celebrated your reign,” she said. “Three nights after you up and left, after I read that oh so lovely note you wrote for us, we celebrated how much you taught all of us, and that you were a fair and honest captain where fair and honesty are damn near bereft on the sea. You were good to us, Teagan Crogan, captain of the Profio and the most feared of the fearsome on the sea.”

“I’m not captain anymore, Zann. You are.”

“I was. In case you couldn’t tell.”

“I mourned. I did. I heard of what happened. Samorians came in and brought the Profio to the bottom of the sea before anybody could sober up enough. I see teaching you to keep yourselves sober didn’t stick.”

The captain, Zann, lost a bit of her mirth. “But you didn’t hear what they did, did you, Crogan. Didn’t get to hear about the sheer brutality, did you. Didn’t know what they did to your daughter, did you. All you got to hear was a ship sank that happened to be yours. Weird how some news travels with such speed, and other news gets lost in the wind.”

Cully sat down beside Crogan, and put a cold arm around his shoulders. “Did you know, Captain Zann, just how much of a good man this here Teagan Crogan is?”

Zann tilted her head. A bit of blood dribbled out her ear. Ears just like her mother’s.

“Before you were born, this here man decided he wanted the Profio. He was a good first mate. You don’t get to that position that quickly without being a bastard first and foremost. A nevermore fearsome fighter, this here Crogan. I watched him fight five Confederate men at the same time. Don’t know why they all didn’t just rush him at the same time, but that’s besides the point.”

Something rumbled in Crogan’s stomach. “It was four.”

“Four! You sell yourself so short. Regardless, though, a man not more versatile in the killing of a man with a sword. And how does he dethrone me and claim the ship as his own?” Cully drew his finger across his throat, stuck his thumb deep within the wound.

“Huh. He never told me that.” Zann leaned over and put her hat back on. Crogan silently thanked her for that. “I bet there’s a lot of things he didn’t tell me.”

Hands were on Crogan. He could feel them. Cold, yet, ethereal. The hands belonged to no one. Cully had gone. Zann as well. The Profio remained. The ship, his old home, flickered, like sunlight when a gull flies past. Whatever that was supposed to mean, Crogan thought, and found his footing steady as he walked the plank onto the Profio.

Except for the crew, everything was in its right place. The wheel he enjoyed leaning on to turn, instead of holding its handles. The main mast where rule-breakers were lashed to and given beatings depending on Crogan’s ruling. The railing where one night, mere hours after meeting his wife and mother of his child, he had carved her name into the soaked wood. He ran his fingers along the letters, tracing them with a shaking finger.

The plank retracted without aid and slid into a slot leading below.

“I’ve seen the bottom of the Sea.”

Zann sat upon the railing, her legs dangling over the letters of her mother’s name.

Crogan said, “Any whiskey on here?”

Zann shook her head. “You know what’s at the bottom? Where all of us end up? Where you should end up but won’t?”

Now Crogan shook his head.

“Darkness,” she said.

The Profio lurched and headed toward the sun and the horizon. Zann was gone again. Crogan walked along the deck. He imagined himself alone, on his dingy boat, several empty bottles encircling him like a lazy prayer circle, supine on his straw bed, dreaming drunken dreams of himself now, walking along his old ship. He so desperately wanted the visits of those he killed, the nameless ones, those that were dealt a punishment far worse than their crimes of either defending their goods or defending themselves from his piracy, his onslaught, his wielding of his sword.

The ship increased speed, without a touch more of wind, as if something below powered it to its destination. Crogan went to the wheel and leaned against it. He tried turning it with his forearms. The wheel stayed where it was. He didn’t even try to tug it more than he had to. He knew it was not moving. The Profio had made up its mind.

The island appeared on the horizon. He could tell by its three trees, where in front of the middle one was the entrance to his cave, where he had absconded all his gains on the sea. Even now, he wasn’t sure why he had done so. He hadn’t visited here since his retirement. A wealth that would have made him comfortable in a large estate, servants, all the food and whiskey he would need for the rest of his days on the earth. One who lives on the sea doesn’t give it up so easily.

Sometimes, when the whiskey was winding down from its grip on his sobriety, he would fancy a life on the land. Away from the musk of the sea, from always having enough of his faculties to keep his balance, no matter what the sea decided to deal out. He couldn’t comprehend how to just walk on even ground. Outside of the island, when had he stepped on solid earth last?

His wedding. A gift to his wife, to have it in a proper church, with those trusted enough to not raise a ruckus or a sword during the festivities. It was the only request she ever made of Crogan.

The Profio halted a few hundred yards from the island. Crogan stood where the plank slot was. He looked over the edge and found his dingy boat. A flimsy rope tethered it to the Profio.

The young boy had returned. He was on Crogan’s boat. Looking up at Crogan. He gave him a small beckon with both hands.

Crogan called down, “Do you have to be creepy about this?” At least he could keep his wit about himself, as whiskey-fueled as it was.

The young boy smiled. He didn’t come around so much. Crogan believed it because he couldn’t remember the young boy. Where he came from. Who he was. How he died.

Crogan waited for the plank to come out, for a boat to magically appear and lead him onto the island. For that was where he was supposed to be going. It was obvious to him. The, well, he had never given them a name. Visions? Apparitions? Ghosts? Whatever they were, they didn’t bring him here on a ship that doesn’t exist anymore to look at an island he hadn’t been to in so long.

Teagan Crogan put his hands on the railing, bent his knees, and leaped over the railing and into the Sea.

The cold felt real. It blasted Crogan into a semblance of sobriety. It made him want more whiskey to keep himself warm.

He swam. When had that ever happened? Him swimming in the sea. As a boy he had done nothing but. Feeling the waves fighting against his body from propelling itself forward. In the water, in the sea, he felt beautiful.

The shore came quickly. The sand heated as it always was. Before he turned to see his old ship, Teagan Crogan knew the Profio would be gone.

It was.

He saluted where it had been. A ship that had been home, a ship that had brought him wealth and pride and a purpose. He knew not where its final place in the sea was. If he had, he would’ve visited that spot, even for a moment.

As Crogan walked along the sand, toward the three trees, Zann said from behind him, “It’s not the treasure, you know.”

“I know.”

“But it’s why you’re here.”

“I know.”

Every step brought clarity to Teagan Crogan. Every step made him feel…he couldn’t think of the word. He couldn’t fathom this feeling, this idea that was infecting his mind. The world became clearer. The world became less dreary. The earth felt right under his bare feet.

The three trees blocked out the sun. Sand covered the wooden door he built long ago to cover the hole. He brushed aside the sand and moved aside the withered leaves.

In the door was his wife’s name. He hadn’t carved that.

He opened the door. Never bothering to put some elaborate trap or lock on the door, because if someone was good enough to find this island and find what was some simple subterfuge regarding the cave, then they could help themselves to Crogan’s earned riches.

He crawled through the small tunnel, dropping a few feet until it leveled. That lasted for a few minutes until the grand opening and his riches. There was no reason to where he put everything. Some riches he had a bitch of a time getting in here.

Teagan Crogan would have taken in more of the detail of the dim cave, had not it been filled with the maimed and the dead of his past. They all stood before him. Waiting.

He walked through them. Through a man he decapitated on the Edwardia Strait. Through the young boy who he would never remember why. Through Cully, who smiled. Through Zann, who reached out to hug Crogan and thought better of it.

He came to the end of those people who died because of him, for whatever the reason. On the floor of the cave was a body. Its red hair clung to the long desiccated skull.

Teagan Crogan stood over the body. Longing for a bottle. Longing for a time when he had simply swam through the water, through the sea, instead of on it. A time when things were beautiful.

He looked about the cave, and found it empty. No treasures. No coin. No jewels. He found nothing that he had acquired and hoarded and hid. He found nothing that he had done.

Except darkness.

 

 


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Daniel Brophy has been writing for nearly ten years. He has finished less than that number of stories and books. He has had one short story published, but that was six years ago and the name of the now-defunct publication escapes him. Born with a thirst for words and stories, Daniel owns enough books to open a small library, or to re-enact the ending of the Twilight Zone episode where the bookworm breaks his glasses at the end (spoiler alert). Thankfully, Daniel has eyes like baseball legend Ted Williams, so broken glasses are not a problem. It should also be noted that his pop culture acumen borders on worrisome, due to a Tarentino-level of knowledge. Dream projects for Daniel include: writing a book set in the Alien universe; building a life-sized replica of the TARDIS and setting it into a wall to act as a door to a room, giving off a ‘bigger on the inside’ illusion; and making a low-budget horror movie about a graveyard. Daniel gallivants across this perilous journey through time and life with his wonderful girlfriend, a joyous woman light-years smarter than Daniel, and whom he hopes sticks around long enough so that he won’t have to edit this author bio ever.

photo credit: peaking sun via photopin (license)

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3 Comments

  1. You said something to the effect of “this was one of the weirder things I’ve written” when you handed in this story. If that’s the case then I encourage you to continue chasing your weirdness. It serves you well.

    Here we have another story from you that is my favorite type of story, the kind I enjoy for reasons I can’t rightly explain. Granted, I understand what is happening here (far more than your last entry Alive in the Superunknown), but I can’t put my finger on what I liked about it so much.

    There’s the fun of the expert pirate who can’t even be bothered to learn which side is port and which side is starboard. There’s the ease with which the ghosts haunt him that lets the reader accept them quite willingly.

    There’s surreal qualities and bizarre antics and a sense of the past catching up with him. And, okay, I wasn’t thrilled that you decided to make the whole thing into a family affair with wife and daughter, frankly the unnamed boy with one arm had more of an impact for me and felt more real.

    But overall this was just a great read.

  2. Danny, I have no idea how you do this but I encourage you to never stop.

    I think the Arena’s time scale might be doing you a disservice, because after emerging from another triumphant piece of Brophy Weirdness I wonder if just one more draft might have settled this down to a point where the bits that didn’t quite hang together might have done so with more solidity?

    Like your last tale, this one made me happy and I can’t really say why. I liked it, I want more, and because I have no idea where you get this stuff from I don’t know what I can helpfully add, other than to just refine what you have here.

  3. Jon Jones @DVWhat

    Bravo Mr. Brophy. This was a creative and beautifully unsettling meditation on the turmoil of one’s inner darkness. I loved this.

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