They said there was a man on the docks, juggling faces. He’d come off a boat with black sails. It was just there one morning. It had drifted to a rest late on a moonless night, like a piece of darkness that had detached itself and decided to roam.
When people arrived to investigate, they found no one on board. No bodies, no signs of violence. Only a man juggling faces on the pier. But that was just a tall tale, the first of many to quickly emerge.
In the Broken Mast, the ale flowed quickly. Rumours and cobbled together gossip spilled out of excitable minds. Two fishermen were saying mackerel had been jumping out of the water, trying to get away from the boat’s stern. They died on the dock, gulping frantically. Damnedest thing if it were true. Listening, young Ned smiled.
“Captain has no face,” old Stanley began, nursing a tankard. “Come’s once a year, when the night be blackest. Fills the trunks below deck with faces he takes from them what he meets in the streets. Sells em to people across the water. Tells em it’ll make em young again. Tells em they can hide in another man’s skin.” He laughed, revelling in the story even as it came to him. “Orrible man, his own face is a thing to behold.” He shivered, dramatically.
Ned scowled. “How do you know all this?”
The older man fixed him with a cool look. “How old d’you think I am, lad?”
Ned laughed. “Old fool.” Stanley chuckled as Ned went to the bar and got them another drink. The boat had caused an outbreak of superstition that had livened up the port like nothing.
Ned listened to Gregory as he puffed at his pipe and spread his own lurid account. “Captain fills his decks with bugs he does, takes them across the sea. Uses em to whip up a plague. One of the devil’s keenest men.” It didn’t take him long to cross himself, then suggest that the ship be burned. It was funny, mused Ned, how the most devout men were so drawn to fire.
He was smirking to himself when he passed Bert. He caught something that puzzled him. “He’s a merchant,” Bert was saying, “trades in faces. Feelings. He can sell you places you aint never seen. Things you aint never heard. He can change you, from the inside out. Least, that’s what I heard from Davy, down by the water.”
Odd. Ned took his ales back to old Stanley. Strange how the tales overlapped in small details. Where had they begun? Where had the foolish stuff about faces got weaved into all the rest? That made him uneasy. So much talk about haunted shores, islands walked by fog and freaks. Ned put the tankards down and laughed at himself. Stupid stories, all of them. People were easily amused. Some of the tales were good though, had your hairs rising. Ned appreciated that. A good tale brightened up many a dim day. Like the drink, it kept you warm on a cold night.
There was a laugh at the bar, as Rosie started making fun of all the doom-crafters. “Bunch of old wives! Every time a lad runs off to sea, it turns out it was some tentacle that came out the water and got him instead!” She threw up her hands miming the boy’s distress. “Oh gawd! Save me!”
Everyone roared with laughter. Rosie’s hair was bright red, streaked with dirty grey. She’d seen many boys come through the bar. Boys and old men. There were few in between. Ned watched her as she turned away. Such an expression on her face. When she didn’t think anyone was looking, her smile wavered. She looked weary. Boys dreamed of adventure, and they rarely came back when they found it. There was little mystery to the sea for mothers, they knew the currents.
They knew there was little need to invent monsters.
He felt a tug of unease then. But it had long since left his mind when Ned finally staggered out of the tavern. He waved off a few friends, and laughed raucously as Stanley stumbled and almost fell.
Ned helped him up, and picked up his cap for him. “Here you go.”
Stanley thanked him. “Good lad.”
A breeze brushed past them. Both men shivered. Stanley seemed to sober up a little. “Gods. That’s walked right up my spine that has. All them bloody idiots talking about that boat, got me tripping over myself.”
He’d spooked himself. Ned tried not to laugh. Stanley had already forgotten he’d been telling tales himself. That was how these things began, Ned mused, how no one could ever remember where a story started. “You’ll be alright,” he said, not unsympathetically. “Just walk it off.”
Stanley nodded, but the night clearly unnerved him. “Don’t go near the water, boy.”
Ned nodded back. “Oh aye, of course. Don’t want my face stolen.”
Stanley frowned. “Listen you, there’s always something real, even in the strangest of things. I’d remember that. It all starts somewhere…” He was going to say more, but he doubled up and started coughing.
Ned tried to be patient with him, he patted him on the back a little, then made sure he was walking straight, and pointed him home. “Off you go, now.”
He watched him go, then Ned made his own way home, and weighed up two short cuts open to him. One was through the winding backstreets, while another would take him past the dock. He smirked. What hadhappened to that boat? Where was the crew?
Not ideal thoughts for the dead of night. Curious, Ned found himself drifting towards the water. He told himself he wanted to see the dark sails, to listen to the creak of the ship as it rocked. He was between commissions himself; having just stepped off one boat, it made him feel less wary of superstition. It wasn’t like he was going to wake up on a bunk the next morning. He’d be in bed next to Tilly.
Arriving at the dock, he found it almost abandoned this late, with no other ships nearby. Just the imposing, abandoned, new arrival, sitting on the water like a dead weight. One man stood looking up at the black ship. Ned recognised the harbour master, he walked over, giving the ship a cautious glance. Shadows at the portholes made him shiver. It was an old galleon. Unnamed, which was peculiar. The rigging still looked tight. A lifeboat swayed gently over the side. The figurehead had been defaced, he saw, eyes gouged, its wood chipped and rotting. The ship looked almost Elizabethan in age, equally grand and battered. The hull suggested many hardy voyages, and a seasoned life. How could so big a ship drift so gently into the harbour?
Was that even possible?
“Quite a sight, eh?” The other man muttered.
Ned nodded. “Didn’t know it was this big. Where is everyone?”
The man laughed softly, it was a mirthless sound. “God knows. These things happen, though no one ever speaks about it. Can’t be explained, can it? It’s just… here.”
That wasn’t enough for Ned. “There was no bodies? Blood? Nothing?”
The other man turned away. He was greying, tired, like he’d seen too much to be seeing even more now. “Blood in the water, probably, always brings something t’the surface.”
“What does that mean?”
The harbour master didn’t turn back. Ned watched him walk away. He was moving fast, as if he’d been in a reverie, and was now keen to be gone. Just as he was about to turn away himself, Ned glanced up and saw a figure on the ship’s deck looking down at him. One of the port men, taking a look around? Ned waved, uncertainly. He became uncomfortable, and turned to walk away.
There was someone standing before him.
Ned gasped. Could it be? “J-Johnny Flynn? But how long’s it been? Where the devil have you been?”
Johnny smiled. “Travelling, lad. Just passing through before I get me next ship.”
Ned’s jaw dropped. “But- your mother- have you visited her? She went out of her mind with worry, what’s wrong with you?!”
“Had to go across the water, stretch my legs.” Johnny smiled, like nothing mattered. The years had been good to him. He looked in rude health, and had a quick smile. His voice had deepened a little. Maybe there was a hitch to it, some accent picked up from far away?
Ned reached out his hand, and Johnny shook it. “Good to see you,” Ned said, still a little confused.
“Come on,” Johnny offered, “I’ll show you my new crew. We’re off to find wonders. See the furthest lands…” He seemed elated, yet his tone was strangely flat.
They walked down the pier together, chatting about the old village they grew up in. The fishing port had fallen on bad times. People blamed it on all sorts of things. Sickness on the wind. Shadows in the water. “Superstition,” Johnny laughed, “for the weak-blooded and the dull-witted.”
Ned stopped. Johnny had never been one to snort at such things before. They’d traded tales in the school yard with growing relish, all about the eerie things they’d find at sea. Ned had scorned it all, but not Johnny. One boy had loved spinning tales, and the other loved believing them. “What about that awful ship?” Ned asked. “What do you think happened to it?”
Johnny looked back to the black galleon. Swaying in the wind, it loomed ponderously over the dock. He regarded it silently. The planks of the pier creaked idly beneath them. “It probably sailed too far,” he said, eventually, “off the charts, lad. Off into blue so dark its turned black…” He looked back to Ned. “You can’t imagine how far you can go. You can’t imagine the places you’ve never imagined. You can only dream. And that’s nothing.”
Ned studied the other man. In the moonlight his skin looked pale, bright. He seemed unremarkable enough, but there was something startling about his eyes. Ned stared at them, until he couldn’t look away. They were swirling eyes, not at rest, like pale blue maelstroms. He stared until Johnny’s expression seemed to falter, to shift.
Johnny spoke, but now his voice was distant. “There you go. Just look into the blue, lad. Float a while. Let it carry you, you’ll get to see the world. And the world will get to see you…” Johnny’s hand was on his shoulder, light, but firm. His voice wasn’t Johnny’s, not really. He was juggling through voices now. Some were from shores completely unfamiliar, others had a more nightmare cadence, more like an insect’s than a man’s. Ned thought of faces juggled on a pier, like a salesman’s wares. A pulse of horror ran through him, but then a cool wave seemed to wash it away.
Ned didn’t feel any pain, though people might have thought otherwise if they’d found his body. It never surfaced however. One of many, it was chained under a boat with black sails, carried along by a foul current as it wandered to another port.
Barry Charman is a writer living in North London. He has been published in various magazines, including Ambit, Aurealis, The Ghastling and Popshot Quarterly. He has had poems published online and in print, most recently in The Literary Hatchet and The Linnet’s Wings. He has a blog at http://barrycharman.blogspot.