BY CHRIS MOREY
Copyright is held by the author.
WE’D BEEN on the raft five days, and our numbers were down by a third. All of us men – the Captain’s wife and daughter had perhaps drowned, perhaps escaped on other wreckage. But survival, not sex, figured uppermost in our minds. Even Jacques, the fine-boned cabin-boy whose rite of passage had been so searing, escaped attention as he huddled to leeward.
At least we were in the Tropics — off Labrador or Norway the cold would have made short work of us. The sea was calm, for the Atlantic. The sun shone — a mixed blessing in these latitudes. Someone with brains had contrived to throw aboard a sail, and we made a crude shelter for the sick and dying, and — by rotation — for the able-bodied. Of which I was one: young, fit and healthy, not that those qualities would necessarily help me in my present situation. As ship’s carpenter, my talents were wasted aboard; all my tools had gone down with the wreck.
We weren’t lacking in the dying, or the dead. Antoine lay at the lower, almost-submerged, end, wavelets washing over his head and breast, seaweed wreathing his legs like serpents. A fragile man — the Captain’s clerk — fewer had been less-fitted for a life at sea. And now the sea had won.
The motion of his arms, gently waving in the surge, was disturbingly lifelike. I made to set the body adrift, but Philippe stopped me.
“Let him alone! When we reach land, he shall have a Christian burial.”
“If we reach land, espèce de con! Anyway, his ‘immortal soul’ is ‘resting in the arms of Jesus’ as you like to put it.” I pointed. “That’s just his carcass.”
He turned away, recognizing a Freethinker. The good Fathers at St. Malo educated me, for which I was grateful, but the religious instruction didn’t take. If I ever got back to France, I’d make them a thank-offering – then settle somewhere like Orléans, as far as possible from the sea.
Jean-Baptiste, the boatswain, had early ordered that all weapons should be stockpiled – and, on further thought, cast into the ocean. “Things are desperate enough, shipmates, without our cutting each other’s throats.”
Only the corporal of marines disagreed. “When we get to land there may be lions, and bears.”
I didn’t tell him there were no bears in Africa. He was probably a ploughboy before he put on his brass-buttoned coat.
“You could always run away,” I suggested.
He spluttered with indignation. “A soldier fights and dies, he never runs!”
“Merde!” I replied. Jean-Baptiste had to separate us.
Jérome came up with the crazy idea that one could stave off thirst by drinking one’s own urine. “You can drink mine, too,” I told him. A vain boast: our elimination of both kinds had almost ceased. At least that prevented the raft from becoming befouled.
A red-letter day. A flying-fish, perhaps fleeing some predator, landed on the bed of the raft, fluttering and gasping. Thierry seized it with a cry of triumph, stunned it, took a bite from the living flesh.
An argument broke out, fists were raised. Those who asserted themselves got a small mouthful each. The rest went without.
On the twelfth day, Marc’s mind gave way. Babbling about the Fruit of the Tree and the Blood of the Lamb, he hurled himself on Gérard, trying ineffectually to throttle him.
The stronger among us restrained him. He continued to rave as we bound him; a gag was the only remedy. He lay trussed like a chicken, writhing on the bare planks in the burning sun. Philippe threw a pail of sea-water over him to relieve his sufferings.
The following morning, he was gone — rolling overboard during the night, by accident or by design. One fewer mouth, but was that cause for rejoicing? We were abandoned, lost on the limitless ocean. Perhaps Marc was one of the lucky ones.
The sight of a distant sail galvanized us into action. Making a human pyramid, we frantically waved a shirt — would that we’d had a Tricolore — but we were too low in the water to be seen. As the ship passed below the horizon, some sat and wept, as if their God hadn’t already forsaken them.
Only a handful of us answered the call for ‘rations’ this morning. Counting his stock carefully, Jean-Baptiste handed us an extra biscuit each — a dubious privilege, given their weevil-infested state. Too much trouble to pick them out: we closed our minds, and ate.
Our scanty water supply ran green and slimy. A few drops of brandy made it barely palatable, but even that had almost run out. Brought up in the gutter, I was inured to filth — but there were limits, and perhaps we were reaching them.
It was Arsène who sighted the vessel — the size of a whale-boat, with a lug-sail. We stood and waved. A few cried out, heedless of the fact that their enfeebled voices lacked the power to carry that far.
Mercifully, they saw us. The sail was lowered, oars put out. The crew were Negroes but the coxswain was a white man. Who could guess the reason for his presence on this barbarian ocean?