I curl my feet up underneath me to conserve warmth. Coughing from the thin mountain air, I struggle against the cold iron manacles shackling my feet to the wall. A mere length of chain as a leash. Rubbing my ankle shackle against the wall, I etch another mark. Four weeks makes this the first day of summer in the south. Normally, I would pull into the port of Camden and watch their fiery festival. They would light the lanterns and send colored fires into the sky. People would throw flowers into the sea and dance with the revels. I would join their number and rejoice in the freedom of the sea.
How I long to be out at sea. The thick, warm scented air, wind in my face, and heading towards where the earth meets the sky every morning and every night. This mountain air and cutting temperature does nothing for a sailor. I need to stare at the sky, charting the stars until I can see the constellations behind my eyelids. I need my ship and I need the sea.
I wonder how I would fare now if I set foot on the Phoenix. Would I be as sure-footed as I was four weeks ago, or would I be wobbly? Would she welcome me home? My skin has grown pale in my time here, it would blister and crack in the Caribbean sun. My calluses still remain, though, years of climbing the rigging cannot be erased so easily. I dig my fingertips into the fragmenting plaster, trying to find purchase among the stone. I take the last of my strength and pull, dragging myself up the wall, toenails bending back against the rough stone. My knees leave bloody trails on the wall like a swervy road of rust. I nearly reach the top of this damp wall, to the grass and moonlight that lie beyond the small sewer grate. I reach up to take hold of the bars, taken in by the sliver of light that the crescent provides. My ankle is pulled back abruptly, the shackle dragging me down, and my fingernails break off on the stone, leaving nothing but bleeding skin in their place. My back hits the stone floor with a shock of cold and breath leaves my lungs. My head dances hazily as I try to piece together the splinters of my mind again.
The moon has moved out of position in the sky when I come to. There is no light in the cell and I cannot see my injuries in the dark. All I can see are shadows of things that may or may not be there. I see moving blotches in front of my eyes and I don’t dare to find out if it’s a rat or just my imagination. I curl up, wrapping myself in my ruined shirt and severed pants. I try to comfort myself, seeking warmth where there is none. Still freezing, I tuck myself into the wooden shelf that is to be my bed for the rest of my foreseeable future and fall into a nightmarish sleep.
My dreams take me places I will never see again and convert them into unrecognizable shores. I see my home, a small village lined by a substantial port, but the measurements are all wrong. The sea lengthens the distance and rocks the ship, dangerously tipping the main mast into the water. I am paralyzed, upside down and underwater on the deck. I stare into the green murk that was once the bluest sea next to the Caspian. I am pulled up by clawed fingers and feathered skin. When I breach the dream surface I am greeted by a sunset colored phoenix. The huge bird plunks me down on the deck of my Phoenix and pecks at my face. Until it dislodges an eyeball, taking the organ into its mouth and swallowing it down.
Drunkenly, I flail in my half sleep and drag myself from the shelf and onto the floor. I’m on my hands and knees, retching my crumbs and stomach acid onto the stones to corrode. My arms shake with strain and can no longer hold my weight. I fall to my elbows and shove myself away from the mess, passing out again when my back hits the familiar wall.
When I sit up in the morning, I have rolled into my own vomit. Disgusted and covered in it, I jump up and dance away, looking at what is left of my fine silk shirt. It has finally been entirely encompassed in human filth, but I have nothing else.
The night brings a summer storm from the south. Rain instead of snow for once in this sun forgotten land. I can practically smell the ocean in the rain as it pours in from the grate and floods the floor of my cell. I take this chance to bathe myself and my clothes and clean off with the freezing water gathering on the floor. Thunder bursts, loud and colorful outside and I laugh loudly like a child in a playground. I cackle uncontrollably as lightning takes the shadows by surprise, my voice filled with hysteria. I choke on my laughter and cough until I can breathe again, taking the moment to simply look up into the rain and imagine my ship: her timbers sound and strong, letting the wind take her for a ride and play with her sails.
Growling interrupts my imagination, or is it the other way around? I look down across the cell and see the shadow of a tall dog. I try to wipe away the blotch from my eyes and look back to the rain, but lightning flashes and I see the matted and rotted dog before me. One eye is bleeding red into the whites and the black iris, where the other is stark white and empty. Sores cover its exposed skin, oozing green and yellow pus into the flooded rainwater. It smells like sewage and its brown teeth poke out of its too small mouth. Dark brown and grey fur takes up its legs and body trying to cover its many wounds. I know nothing of how it got in here, but I am locked in an abandoned cell, no jailor, no cellmates, with a rabid dog. I step back and press myself against the wall.
The dog brings its hackles up and its hair stands on end as it growls low in its throat, saliva dripping from its maw. I begin to climb the wall with nailless fingers and pull up on my shackle, desperate to get higher. The dog bites my chain, which is wiggling like an inverted fishing line. The chain breaks on those rusty teeth and I am able to reach the grate. I hang on to the bars with every ounce of adrenaline borrowed strength. I look down and see the monster has run up the wall, feet flat and pointed as though gravity need not apply to it. Then I feel the tipping.
The wall falls catastrophically out if its sockets and I with it. I feel weightless for a mere moment before I crash to the ground outside on top of the wall. My aching ribs and lungs suck down fresh air with excessive greed. It is a long time before I realize the growling has stopped. I sigh one last breath and pry my stiff fingers from the bars of the grate. My hands are numb and soaked from the mountain rain. I shiver and twist, to stand straight. My spine has trouble holding itself up for a moment, but I catch my balance. Those years at sea were not wasted.
The dog is nowhere to be seen, appearing and disappearing all in the span of seconds, minutes. But the wall remains toppled and the shackles stay untethered. I lie down on the grass and breathe into it, seeking solid ground when my mind is rocking maddeningly as a ship in a storm.
Lazily making my way along a dead leafed path, I whistle my misty breath into the stagnant winter air. I trace my hand along the rock face, fingertips searching for nothing in particular, but a guide in the Braille of rocks leads me in a straight line. My fingers fall from the face as it drops off into a cavern’s jaw. Looking down into the opening, I see the white snow tongue and stalactite teeth that time and pressure have caused. I step impulsively inside and manage to hit my head on the back of the throat on my way down, falling onto my knees as the jarring slide comes to an end. The center is what should have been fully fleshed out stone rather than a hollow image of it. I search around me and find my breath no longer hangs in the air and my legs no longer numb with cold. This stomach is almost tepid. Petrified, acidic grass surrounds me lining the insides. Following all the way to the rumbling of the mountain’s last meal, of whom has no intention of making it any farther in this digestive tract of caves.
A huge mass of peculiar white fur, moving slowly with its absorption into the grass. Roots of trees gather up on its back pulling it down into the acrid grass and small intestine. Flowers bloom and push into the creature, aiding the trees in their capture of the large prize. With strongly sinewed legs its primary occupation must be running. However, what besides cannibalistic rock would hunt such a thing? Small zigzaggy horns sprout from its temples and shoot out and up into its coils and ringlets of fur. Its eyes are wide and open, pupils small and the whites ever visible. Water seeps in around its jaw and obscures ever more of the meal. If I didn’t know better I’d say this was a doglike creature.
Creeping over, I put my hand on its side. The creature howls in pain and rises against the restraints. Then the plants constrict, beginning to choke the life out of the creature. The walls of the stomach cramp around us, moving fluidly as though made of plasma as it tries to pull us under. I rip away at the vines constricting the white dog, able to break some, but not all. The dog bites at the roots around its face and frees its muzzle. My feet are soaked as the mud sucks them down into the earth. I pull on the dog to leverage myself out, but it only succeeds in sinking us both deeper, until all but my neck and head are covered. Then everything is covered and I’m screaming soundlessly into the dirt and fluid that fill my mouth, throat, and lungs, choking my breaths out of me.
I wake with a start, breathing heavily, hands scraping around in the freshly turned soil. I dug myself a burrow in my sleep. Moving out of the nice little hole, I lie back on fresh grass and let the sky reflect down into my pupils. It is here that my muscles find a bit of peace in this rocky land and relax for the first time in innumerable weeks.
Hiking away from the mountains and into the forest is my first instinct. Leaving high altitudes seems as good a start as any in order to head towards the ocean. Until the sun rises, I’ll have no way of knowing if I’m headed in the right direction. I walk with purpose, anxiety filling my chest as I head into the wilderness, for which I am sorely equipped. I take turns at random, following no particular map or compass. One thing is for certain, the wounds will heal the farther I get away from this place.
I walk for hours, clambering over fallen trees and crumbling stone. This forest reminds me of rot, of lice eating the dead skin of a whale’s back as they hitch a free ride. It seems almost unnatural for so much foliage to be in one place, for the plants to be constantly in battle with one another. A hierarchy always in flux.
Clutching myself for any meager warmth I could muster in my empty body as I ran to keep the sludge moving in my veins. I took no notice of any particular direction or landmark, utterly lost in a whirl of white and grey. Only following the dim sign of the sun for cardinal directions. Finally, I was degraded to limping on stripped ankles, head down against the wind with wet and matted hair clinging to me. A long stretch of path appeared before me and my snow-misty eyes broke wide open against the dry air, crusty, loose lashes sticking to my cheeks. My dreams came to me in sleep and so they will come to me in waking. Pulling a hand away from my chest, I run it along the rock wall, feeling the same language etched there as before. The mouth of the cave is here, as could only be the product of cruel irony and a universal sense of humor. Even just standing there outside of the stalactites and stalagmites I could feel the heat coming from the back of its throat, as though breath was being drawn in and never exhaled.
I see two of me as I climb down into the hole, one from my dream and one from reality as they copied and made their movements symmetrical. I slide on my back down the silky rock face. My bare feet hit the grass and my pale skin soaks up the humidity greedily. Birds squawk in the branches and creatures stir underneath the grass. I take slow steps and approach where I know he will be, the white fur blackened by soil and smells of ash. The roots are not pulling it down. Instead of walking in to free a trapped animal, I’ve walked right into a den.
The creature growls down at me, lowering its head and raising its hackles. I back away a few steps before sprinting to the rock face, scrambling to climb up the smooth rock I just slid down. My broken nails find no purchase and only leave marks on the glassy surface. The massive dog tramples me under its immense paws, sending me tumbling to the side. It picks me up by the leg, huge teeth slip into my skin like heated needles. Blood leaks out and drips down my sides. Dirting the fur even more with contrasting colors of black and red on blue and white. I scream, crying until my leftover voice is used up. My horrific noises lift up off the grassy plane and up and out. I hold onto the muzzle to keep the teeth from twisting inside my bones. Then I am ripped from the jaws of the teeth, some of my leg staying, some of it going. Sinews drip from between the dog’s teeth as it regards my savior. I, too, turn my eyes to see what it was that dragged me out. Sitting up on the now red grass, it is the wall-toppler, the dog that broke me out of prison.
It stands just as broken and ugly as it did before, wounds sourly ripped open and bones barely covered by wooden skin. Scrambling away, I’m kicking myself along the grass with one bloody leg to get out of the way of the charge. The broken dog jumps in front of me. I can barely see around its hind legs. The white dog eyes this intruder with a cold demeanor, unwavering. They charge at one another, black and bloody teeth clamping into matted fur. The white dog uses the momentum to his advantage and takes the other to the ground, dragging the wall-toppler by his neck. My dog’s legs kick away at the other’s muzzle, forcing his mouth to release. He turns over onto his stomach and grapples onto the white dog’s neck in return, jumping up and forcing the other to land harshly on his spine.
This broken dog, sapped of any strength, rips into the white dog’s throat, tearing away at the healthy, pink skin beneath the white fur. Blue blood falls out in ugly slashes that the ground soaks up greedily. Unlike my blood which is still in an even-lined pool, as immiscible with the ground as oil and water. When the white dog finally whimpers I know it's not dead, but it is over. The green ceiling puckers and swirls itself open, revealing the night sky. Looking up brings tears to my eyes as light leaves the cave. Blinking back tears and squinting, I see that the dogs have disappeared. However, the remains of the fight are still here. Blood on the grass, tufts of fur floating into trees, and my leg, looking more like a stuffed animal’s appendage than a humans with all the stuffing falling out. I throw off my shirt and wrap it around my gnarled appendage; blood soaks the black fabric making it look gristly. I pull vines from the ground and tie off the end, blood starts to clot and slow, no longer steeping fresh into the ground.
I leverage myself painfully onto my stomach, slowly crawling over to my severed limb. Fighting the panic and the urge to vomit, I take the pant leg off of it and add it to the padding on my makeshift tourniquet. I try to stop the bleeding completely. Breathing hard on my back, my vision starts fogging around the edges. I feel weak and feverish in this cave that is no longer a cave. Staring up, a person interrupts my view of the sky.
“Can you hear me? Hey!” I try to force my eyes all the way open, but they flutter before gluing themselves shut.
The real miracle is that the Phoenix is still docked, right where I left her last. Her flags have been changed from my colors to that of the crown, but she is still there. They didn't chop up her timbers and burn them. Even the king couldn’t pass up a ship as fine as the Phoenix. I run my hand down her hull, feeling the familiar varnish and salt stains. The waters here don’t agree with her that’s for sure, she has a few bruises from iceberg collisions, but she waited. The banister is still broken where the boarding hooks clamped on and the rigging is loose where Elias fell off. In the dark, I climb aboard, real and artificial feet as sure as an acrobat as I climb the intact rigging into the crow’s-nest. I set my eyes on the horizon line for the first time in nearly a year. The dark grey ocean is a poor substitute for what I want to see, but the smell of salt will have to be enough for now. Not a prison, not fever, not even an artificial leg can keep me from the ocean.
Slowly, I climb back down onto the main deck, no lights are on in the cabin and all is quiet. I set to work on her, undoing the ties that hold her to the dock, unfurling the sails and letting them fill with the northern chill. In her blue sails, I see the ghosts that set her afloat that last time. Small as she is, the Phoenix is easily handled by one alone, built for speed and precision as she is. We set out slowly, leaving the dock with little more than a splash. I look up to the night sky and grin at the map. Every person in my crew deserves real estate there. I trace over the constellations and look for one particularly bright star in the sky, Sirius, set in the mouth of Canis Major. The heading written in the southern sky. In my head I ramble off all of the constellations in sight, passing the Lynx and Pollux. Searching the sky for Canis Minor. But all I find is Canis Major, standing proudly, claiming his prize of the brightest star in the night sky.