Creaking timbers and the tireless rocking of “Neptune’s Tiger” lulled the infant. She slept deeply much of the time. Pearl had named her Scarlet, because the child’s truth carried a terrible scandal. The brute grief of that disgrace had compelled Pearl two nights earlier to carry the babe as nigh to heaven as she could climb upon the topmast and there to offer that new soul to the tempest, to the wrath of God.
As direct consequence of a sin punishable by man, the Almighty had given to her dishonored bosom a lovely child, to connect her forever with the race and descent of mortals. In an uncontrollable rage of heartache, she had offered that blessed soul back to heaven, shouting into the squall what none below could hear, a holy curse from Scripture upon her and this infant: “And the woman – she was arrayed in scarlet! A scarlet woman! Decked with gold and pearls! And in her hand! As in my hand! A golden cup full! Full with the filthiness of her fornication! And upon her forehead was a name written – Mystery!” [”Revelation” 17:4-5]
If Okwari had not climbed to the crow’s nest and seized her and the infant from the black wind, they would surely have perished then, so terrible was her remorse. A river in heaven had carried off that storm. And with it departed the tantrum of her sorrow. Now, only the sorrow remained.
The sparkling day that followed had not helped lift the huge shadow from her heart. Flamboyant flashes of sunlight through torn and fast-flying clouds only illuminated the fact that she had lost Okwari. He had broken covenant with his god, implacable Aireskoi, and had touched her.
Into his arms, he had embraced a creature of spirit, and by saving her life had forfeit his own. All that remained was the shell of him. At the bow rail, he stood staring across the glinting sea with impenetrable eyes empty as a shark’s. He would not speak with her or anyone.
Dr. Cobb had little solace or comfort to offer. Afflicted below deck with dire claustrophobia and above by bouts of shuddering seasickness that clamped him in misery to the binnacle, the dwarf minister existed subtracted utterly from himself. While the infant slept, Pearl tried reading psalms to comfort him. The words spun senselessly in a maelstrom of nausea.
So, Pearl found herself alone on the enormous sea with her inner emptiness. The Dutch captain and crew had taken her money for the passage and avoided her for a witch. No Dutchman scorned money, the essence of sanity. “Neptune’s Tiger” freighted farm equipment, guns and liquor to trade for beaver pelts with the colonists in Nieuw Amsterdam. The lavish fare the Englishwoman had paid to transport her, the bastard infant, dwarf and savage doubled the profits of this crossing.
Yet, sanity and money could not match the ill fortune, the kraken’s contagion, she suffered them to carry. Two storms had already set upon them out of nowhere, and now a third lay deep down in the sky of the western horizon like a purple mirage of pagodas and Byzantine domes.
Several of the crew had requested that the captain command the heathen take quarters below. His taut presence at the bow frightened them. The captain declined, loath to disturb that sharp-set trance. He had encountered many tribesmen in his far-flung travels yet none with a faceted countenance so sensuous of violence. And when he observed that even the witch could not stir him, he ordered the crew leave be the inexorable warrior.
Okwari remained fixed at his blind watch under the wheeling stars. He stood unmoving before dawn’s fiery ethers. And he persisted straight through the gloomy day into the unbolting chains of lightning that set loose a night of pitiless winds and dervish torrents.
The galleon soared up a wave colossal and scripted with foam as a page torn from the book of creation. From the crest, he and the sailors on storm-watch beheld waterspouts tossing veils of blue fire in vaporous streamers and fluorescent sheets.
Down into a vale of that phantasmal inferno plunged “Neptune’s Tiger.” Giant spheres of spectral flame bobbed on buffeting gusts, and where they collided with masts and bulkheads they burst into angelic points of white light and stood in a seraphic host of radiant corpusants upon spars, yardarms and gaffs.
So dazzlingly bedighted, the galleon surged again across the black face of a mountainous wave and from the tottering summit beheld under spiders of lightning on the stormy horizon a foundering freighter.
Summoned by the cries of the crew, the captain stood aghast in the chart house door before the burning figures of sailors sheathed in radiance as diaphanous as though their souls verged on flight. Great boulders of silver refulgence rolled on the crackling wind and smashed into incandescent pebbles across the decks, sending blue imps and storm devils rushing up the masts.
Wondrous awe molted quickly to alarm at the sight of the distressed merchantman. Shouting bold commands, he directed the galleon on a dangerous, veering course toward the distressed vessel.
They came alongside as the cargo ship keeled to starboard. In the frenzied interval of letting down dinghies to shuttle rescue equipment and retrieve the endangered crew, the hawsers of the stricken ship snapped and her seams gaped and timbers splintered.
The captain of “Neptune’s Tiger” risked a disastrous collision in the pandemonium of cascading waves. All the while, the Dutch galleon flared lurid brilliance from masts, spars and rigging that bristled with electric barbs and fiery thorns of argent light.
Confident that candles set by heaven posted witness to their heroism, the crew of “Neptune’s Tiger” defied the raging tempest. Okwari stared through all his senses at this convergence of storm and the spirit world. Leaning far over the foredeck rail and scowling into the concussive wind, he commanded an encompassing view of the salvage.
Longboats, heaving through turbulent swells, ferried officers and sea chests from the broken ship. Dinghies rescued the crew who wore shattered expressions in the thunderflash. Abruptly, the freighter pitched upright beneath an iron blaze of tangled lightning that lit up gorgon clouds.
Two dinghies still lashed to the wreck and receiving sailors capsized and vanished in a rush of violent water before the viper hiss of the discharge exploded under bludgeoning thunder.
Screaming like something possessed, the cargo vessel listed vertical, a breeching leviathan. Timbers strained with a grinding sound, then burst, shearing the prow at the beam ends, splitting the ship in two.
The sundered halves wallowed in the rabid sea, torn ends uplifted by the massive weight of the quarterdeck and the forecastle under the waterline. The exposed cross section revealed mid-decks jammed with naked black bodies shackled to the planks spoonwise in mortal stowage as deep into the holds as the forked light of the storm illuminated. Their strident voices wafted on the delirious wind.
Okwari leaped onto the gunnel, yanked off the deck by the gravity of this human chasm. Gale force alone kept him from toppling overboard, and he stood suspended in the molten night, eyes hard, dark lit and fixed upon the debris of human lives by the hundreds.
Their cries, beat almost to silence by the battering squall, cut deep into his heart. A chorus struggled upward against the howling storm to meet him, voices joined in song excavated from a din of thundercrack and cascading wind.
Sequined by screams remote and spluttering as stars, a musical chant unfurled from out that grievous abyss. Briefly, an incredible anthem subtracted him from all horror, scourging him with unnamable wonder and crushing beauty.
A shout shoved through the mucus clot in his throat and, raising both arms to the bright darkness, a spiritual cry retched forth. His savage shout from the bottom of desolation flew, swept aside by the storm. And in the next black instant, the ship’s rent halves circled each other down the maelstrom like wary pugilists seen from on high. Frothing waters closed over, and the singing ceased.