Preface from Unicorn Variations: Here is another of those
short shorts I dearly enjoy doing when the opportunity and the
idea come together. I tend to see things like this as
single-panel, briefly captioned cartoons--and I work backward a
little from there.
It was with them constantly--the black patch directly
overhead from whence proceeded the lightnings, the
near-blinding downpour, the explosions like artillery fire.
Van Berkum staggered as the ship shifted again, almost
dropping the carton he carried. The winds howled about him,
tearing at his soaked garments; the water splashed and swirled
about his ankles--retreating, returning, retreating. High waves
crashed constantly against the ship. The eerie, green light of
St. Elmo's fire danced along the spars.
Above the wind and over even the thunder, he heard the
sudden shriek of a fellow seaman, random object of attention
from one of their drifting demonic tormentors.
Trapped high in the rigging was a dead man, flensed of all
flesh by the elements, his bony frame infected now by the
moving green glow, right arm flapping as if waving--or
Van Berkum crossed the deck to the new cargo site, began
lashing his carton into place. How many times had they shifted
these cartons, crates and barrels about? He had lost count long
ago. It seemed that every time the job was done a new move was
He looked out over the railing. Whenever he was near,
whenever the opportunity presented itself, he scanned the
distant horizon, dim through the curtain of rain. And he hoped.
In this, he was different. Unlike any of the others, he
had a hope--albeit a small one--for he had a plan.
A mighty peal of laughter shook the ship. Van Berkum shuddered.
The captain stayed in his cabin almost constantly now, with a keg
of rum. It was said that he was playing cards with the Devil.
It sounded as if the Devil had just won another hand.
Pretending to inspect the cargo's fastenings, Van Berkum
located his barrel again, mixed in with all the others. He
could tell it by the small dab of blue paint. Unlike the others
it was empty, and caulked on the inside.
Turning, he made his way across the deck again. Something
huge and bat-winged flitted past him. He hunched his shoulders
Four more loads, and each time a quick look into the
distance. Then--Then . . . ?
He saw it. There was a ship off the port bow! He looked
about frantically. There was no one near him. This was it. If
he hurried. If he was not seen.
He approached his barrel, undid the fastenings, looked
about again. Still no one nearby. The other vessel definitely
appeared to be approaching. There was neither time nor means to
calculate courses, judge winds or currents. There was only the
gamble and the hope.
He took the former and held to the latter as he rolled the
barrel to the railing, raised it, and cast it overboard. A
moment later he followed it.
The water was icy, turbulent, dark. He was sucked
downward. Frantically he clawed at it, striving to drag himself
to the surface.
Finally there was a glimpse of light. He was buffeted by
waves, tossed about, submerged a dozen times. Each time, he
fought his way back to the top.
He was on the verge of giving up when the sea suddenly
grew calm. The sounds of the storm softened. The day began to
grow brighter about him. Treading water, he saw the vessel he
had just quitted receding in the distance, carrying its private
hell along with it. And there, off to his left, bobbed the
barrel with the blue marking. He struck out after it.
When he finally reached it, he caught hold. He was able to
draw himself partly out of the water. He clung there and
panted. He shivered. Although the sea was calmer here, it was
still very cold. When some of his strength returned, he raised
his head, scanned the horizon.
The vessel he had sighted was even nearer now. He raised
an arm and waved it. He tore off his shirt and held it high,
rippling in the wind like a banner.
He did this until his arm grew numb. When he looked again
the ship was nearer still, though there was no indication that
he had been sighted. From what appeared to be their relative
movements, it seemed that he might well drift past it in a
matter of minutes. He transferred the shirt to his other hand,
began waving it again.
When next he looked, he saw that the vessel was changing
course, coming toward him. Had he been stronger and less
emotionally drained, he might have wept. As it was, he became
almost immediately aware of a mighty fatigue and a great
coldness. His eyes stung from the salt, yet they wanted to
close. He had to keep looking at his numbed hands to be certain
that they maintained their hold upon the barrel.
"Hurry!" he breathed. "Hurry. . . ."
He was barely conscious when they took him into the
lifeboat and wrapped him in blankets. By the time they came
alongside the ship, he was asleep.
He slept the rest of that day and all that night,
awakening only long enough to sip hot grog and broth. When he
did try to speak, he was not understood.
It was not until the following afternoon that they brought
in a seaman who spoke Dutch. He told the man his entire story,
from the time he had signed aboard until the time he had jumped
into the sea.
"Incredible!" the seaman observed, pausing after a long
spell of translation for the officers. "Then that storm-tossed
apparition we saw yesterday was really the _Flying Dutchman!_
There truly _is_ such a thing--and you, you are the only man to
have escaped from it!"
Van Berkum smiled weakly, drained his mug, and set it
aside, hands still shaking.
The seaman clapped him on the shoulder.
"Rest easy now, my friend. You are safe at last," he said,
"free of the demon ship. You are aboard a vessel with a fine
safety record and excellent officers and crew--and just a few
days away from her port. Recover your strength and rid your
mind of past afflictions. We welcome you aboard the _Marie
Roger Zelazny. And I Only Am Escaped to Tell Thee
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