The Caitlyn Marie

     “Maritime legend has it that anytime a ship crosses directly over the site of a shipwreck, the two ships  can change places back and forth at will. If the living ship is pulled under the waves and trapped for any length of time, those aboard her will join the legion of lost souls that crew the shadowy ships of Davey Jones’ fleet.  If one is out on the open sea at midnight, and they happen to face true North, they might see a fleet of ships that glow a ghostly white rise from the depths to sail the high seas all night long. Heaven help the ships and crews that come in contact with them, too.” Daibidh O Corragain smiled as his crew suppressed a shudder.  He was a storyteller of the finest sort, through and through, and so after a theatrical pause he smiled and continued. “Seamus O’ Hanrahan stood on the deck of his ship and looked out over the water, watching as the orange fingers of flame turned to red in the darkening twilight. They navigated by the path of the sun during the day, and by the stars at night, but sunrise and sunset were outside of time. They spoke of the eternal, the never ending, the time and place outside of time and place. These were the times when seafaring men knew the size and strength of the vast ocean.   

     “As the red sky darkened to the deep shadows of night, Seamus turned to go back down below decks. He saw his watchman with glass raised, and a worried look on his face. Stepping up behind the young man, he followed where the glass was pointing, and he saw a small dot on the horizon, which he guessed to be a ship, judging by the way it was moving on the water, and his watchman’s countenance.  As he stared expectantly at the young man, impatiently waiting to hear what he’d found, the lad handed him the glass and wordlessly bade him look for himself.  It took him a few moments to realize why the young man had wanted him to see this sight.  The speck he had spotted was indeed a ship, twin to his own he would guess by the way she was moving, under full sail, about five nautical miles off their port bow.   Her magnificent white sails pillowed out in the wind, and she listed a bit to port, but something seemed off. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was or why it seemed strange, and after a moment he shook off the feeling, admonishing himself not to be paranoid.

     “’Looks like the Caitlin Marie, sir.’”

     “’That it does, lad.’” Seamus ducked through the doorway toward the lower decks, wanting the time to think more than anything else. The slight Irish watchman sighed to himself, then smiled. He knew what the answer was, even before Mr. O’Hanrahan made a decision. These were trading vessels, and when the need arose, part of Her Majesty’s Navy. The ship itself was valuable to the Empire, but recovering the cargo was of paramount importance to the owner of the ship; depending on what she was carrying, his entire life’s work could be tied up in whatever filled her cargo holds. Recovering the ship successfully, both for the Empire and for her owners, was part of their job, and at any rate was worth far more than the half night’s hard sailing it would take to reach her.

      “Suddenly startled by a hand on his shoulder, the young watchman jumped, let fly a colorful stream of Gaelic, and cursed himself for his lack of attention. He heard a chuckle behind him, and then Mr. O’Hanrahan’s voice said dryly, “I’m not sure that’s possible, especially in the way you suggested.” He smiled and continued. “Get the lads together, hoist the sails and prepare the ship for a long journey. We’ll need full sail within the hour. Be sure we’re not takin on water.  If it is the Caitlin Marie, her cargo’s worth a king’s ransom.”

     “Aye, sair. We’ll be ready.”

      “An hour later, full darkness had set in, accompanied by a bright full moon. The sea, though calm, would never be completely still.  The ship they were pursuing glowed slightly against the darkness, illuminated by the rising moon with an ethereal glow. The crew quickly hoisted the sails, and they were off. His ship stopped alongside the other, and he stood looking up at her through the haze of sea spray. Pitching his voice to be heard on the deck of the other ship, he hollered his compliments and a request for permission to board. No one boards or leaves a sailing ship without her captain’s permission. Receiving no answer, he hailed again. The only answer he received was the roar of the tide and the wake the two ships made as they moved through the water. He focused his glass on the back of the ship, in an effort to spot a crewman on deck, or find the captain at the wheel. His raised glass found the wood of the ship’s hull before he focused in and found the deck.  O’Hanrahan’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of the ship, and he had to force it out and gasp for another. The name on the back of the vast black silhouette burned into his memory, and sent a chill down his spine. He blinked and took a second look. Where it should have said Caitlyn Marie, the wood was splintered so badly that he could not make out the name, but for just a moment, it seemed to say Fionúir. The White Ghost. That was an omen if ever there was one. He forced down the shudder that threatened to overtake him.

     He blinked and rubbed his eyes, and when he looked again, all he saw was the splintered wood where a name should have been. Letting out a breath that he had not realized he was holding, he watched as two other members of the crew started to dispatch the lifeboat that would take them all to the other ship.  They rowed through the calm water and stopped just beneath the other ship’s port hull.  The rope that crew would climb down to enter a lifeboat was down, and looking up, he saw that the lifeboat itself was missing from its rack, as though it had been dispatched.  As they climbed the ladder and boarded the ship, Seamus and his men heard a haunting melody that seemed to come from below decks.  The melody was sad and funny at the same time. Seamus glanced at his second officer, Mr. Henry, and they came to an unspoken decision.  Henry kept two of the men with him, and they immediately set to, inspecting the ship for damage, and readying her for sailing into port.   

     Seamus disappeared below decks with the two men assigned to accompany him, and the first place they saw at the foot of the stairs was the small galley. As they walked inside, Seamus saw a meal laid out on the table, steam rising from the plates. The music they were following had reached an almost fevered pitch, and a stab of fear sent chills racing one another up and down Seamus’ spine. As he approached the table, the food disappeared, and he turned to find one of the men looking closely at him. Without a word, and without meeting the eyes of either of the men, he turned and left the room, not quite successfully suppressing a shudder as he did so. As they made their way down the hall toward the crew quarters, the music grew even louder, until it invaded his thoughts, and became all he could think about. He swallowed hard, and stopped in front of the Captain’s quarters. Knocking on the door, and receiving no answer, except a swell in the music, he roughly pushed open the door, and walked inside. The room befit the Captain of a tall ship, with maps and navigational equipment laid out on the massive oak desk. There was a tankard of ale, and a cup on the desk, and the room was strewn with the various treasures of a sea farers life, paintings of giant sea creatures, treasure chests and money bags lay untouched on the floor, and still the music continued, paralyzing in its intensity and volume. Seamus ordered his men to search the room, thoroughly, convinced they would finally find the source of the music. “Relax, Seamus, old boy, someone’s just havin a bit o fun wi’ ye,” he told himself. The room was empty, bereft of any clue that might help them figure out what had happened. “Cavanaugh, you stand watch here. If the Captain of this ship comes back, I want to talk to him.”

     “Aye, sair.”

     Seamus glanced over at the desk and his heart nearly stopped. For a split second, no more, he thought he saw the ship’s captain, doubled over the desk,  quite dead. As he willed himself back to control, he rubbed his eyes and looked again, and the desk sat as it had before, free of the image of a dead Captain. Feeling his knees weaken, Seamus chided himself. After all, he was a seasoned sailor, and had never met anything on the high seas to be truly frightened of. There were stories, but that’s all they were. Squaring his shoulders, he sternly ordered himself to forget this nonsense, and moved to continue the search of the ship. As they left the Captain’s quarters, they saw the figure of a young woman, carrying a lantern, moving toward the ladder that would take her above decks. She appeared to have come from the cargo hold. Breathing a sigh of relief, he followed her, knowing that he would finally find some answers to all of this. She was a pretty young woman, in a white silk dress with dark blue velvet overcoat. Her hair was of the style of a lady at court, and he was most intrigued to discover what a lady of her caliber was doing aboard a cargo ship. As they approached the cargo hold, he sent the other man with him, named Hutchins, inside to investigate. As for himself, he followed the young lady up the ladder.  As he reached the top, the two men who had stayed behind with Henry approached him.          

     “The ship is secure, sir. Mr. Henry would like to know what you’ve found and when we will be ready to leave. He ordered us to assist you in the search.”

     “Noted, Mr. Briggs. Follow the lady. Bring her to me. I’d like to question her.” Seamus trusted  Henry, but he preferred to be in charge of his own destiny, so he moved to inspect the work the crew had done to ready the ship for sailing. After all, it would probably fall to him to assign crew to see this ship back to port. As he finished inspecting the repairs on one side of the ship, the sea suddenly grew choppy and he barely had time to grab the railing and hold on to keep himself from being swept overboard. His heart sank as he heard a yelp of surprise that suddenly broke off. Running over to the other side of the deck, he found no sign of the woman with the lantern or the two men who had followed her, and realized with clammy shock that they must have been swept overboard. Suddenly, he noticed the music, that it was different somehow, different and quieter. That might mean that the Captain returned to his quarters. Someone had to change it. He decided to meet his crewman and the Captain halfway, or barring that, to visit the Captain in his own quarters and find some answers to all of this.

     He found himself suddenly in front of the Captain’s cabin, with no real recollection of how he had gotten there, and fighting to master himself, he entered the room without knocking, reasoning that the Captain would understand. The room was again empty, and the music had changed again, and seemed to be speaking to him this time, in a language that only his subconscious had a prayer of understanding. The message was quite haunting, in a way that might render someone foever changed, and his reason was at war with his intellect. The intellect, which was telling him currently that none of this could be real, was losing. He longed to find a safe place and hide until the danger he sensed with every fiber of his being had passed, yet there was something inside him telling him that none of this was real.  His men were missing, that was real enough, and yet they might not be missing. They might simply be in another part of the ship.

     With a white hot anger that he was quite unable to explain, Seamus roared down the corridor belowdecks, determined to find his men and to sail this ship into safe port. As he approached the cargo hold, the music had reached a crescendo that was almost beyond tolerance, speaking now as it did to his very soul. Wrenching the door open, he fought his way inside, to find the cargo hold mostly empty, with only about forty barrels standing neatly beside one another, and not a thing amiss, but with no sign of the man he had sent to check the hold. As he looked closer, he noticed that some of the barrels were open at the top, and there was some kind of liquid on the floor. The music had reached a level beyond tolerance now, and his soul screamed with the effort of maintaining his individual identity, that which made him unique. He sank to his knees, hands over ears, vaguely aware that he heard a familiar popping sound, smelled a familiar scent, but not quite able to place what it meant. Somehow, he understood that this scent was danger, a smell that seafaring men feared, an odor of death that few survived. As he surrendered to the blackness, he saw one final vision of the charred remains of a ship in splinters and ruins, and knew it for the truth.

     Later, the story would be put about that the ship caught fire when a wayward lantern overturned, igniting the whiskey on the floor of the cargo hold. As far as Seamus was concerned, that was as good a story as any. How he’d found himself on the port deck of the ship as it burned, watching through a sickly haze as his ship pulled alongside, he would never know, nor would he know how he boarded his ship under his own power, but as he stepped from the decks of the doomed ship onto the deck of his own, he felt a great sense of relief wash over him, followed by a sense of dread as, moving below decks toward his cabin for a well deserved rest, he heard the faintest strains of a familiar melody begin again. He looked back over his shoulder to satisfy himself of his ship’s safety, and saw the Caitlyn Marie, or what was left of her, slip out of sight below the waves.