Black Petals Issue #92, Summer, 2020

The Whispering

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Lena Abou-Khalil-The Nowhere Man
Grace Sielinski-'Port
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Marc Dickerson-Theater is Dead
C. S. Harbold-The Whispering
Dean Patrick-Vincent's Warning
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Joseph Hurtgen-Worlds to Conquer
Mickie Bolling-Burke-The Bringer of Darkness
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Cindy Rosmus-Out of Juice
Matthew Wilson-Endless Men's Hate
Michael Steven-Hell Rift
Sean Goulding-Hypnagogic
David C. Kopaska-Merkel-In the Land of Giants
Loris John Fazio-The Thing in the Woods
Loris John Fazio-The Beggar Knows
Richard Stevenson-Peg Leg
Richard Stevenson-The Alkali Lake Monster
Richard Stevenson-The Green Man

92_bp_whispering_stanton.jpg
Art by Henry Stanton 2020

The Whispering

By: C.S. Harbold

 

          17 August 1819

          Something terribly strange and unfortunate is happening aboard The Ardent Fortune. My crew has begun to fall prey to a strange illness that starts with a sweating fever, then descends into a delirious, whispering insanity —— and as I have learned as of this morning, ends in sudden disappearance. Within a week’s time three of my crew have been struck, two of which have vanished. We have scoured the entirety of the ship’s hold, from the supply room to the cook’s quarters, and have found not a trace of them. I cannot entirely rule out murder, for the type of man to undertake the arduous journey that we do is a rough one, often with little to lose, but there are more reasons to discount this than there is evidence.

The crew’s quarters are tight with bunks, the only empty space existing as walkways between them. It would be nigh impossible for one to snuff another without another hearing or seeing, and word on a ship travels in an instant. Furthermore, we are on the returning end of our journey. If ever there were a time for a man to grow murderous it seems unlikely to me that it would be when home is in sight. The strongest evidence I found lie in their eyes. Not even the most seasoned veterans of my crew went unshaken by the events. There is a fear in their eyes, and as they’ve gone back to work, a quiet restlessness in their duties unlike the song and shanty I am accustomed to. Having stricken three and taken two, their empty, stained cots and the gibbering whispers of the remaining infected serve as grave reminders that any one of them could be caught next, including myself. London could not come sooner.

  • Captain Wardlow, The Ardent Fortune

 

I am forced to make an addition to today’s log, for no sooner had the ink dried on the parchment had I heard a sudden knocking on my chamber door. I was led down to the crew’s chambers, where yet another has fallen ill. He sweats profusely and finds the simplest movements laborious. The Whispers have not yet started, so there is hope that his illness is a common one, but the babble of the other still sick is foreboding, and there is an inexplicable terror in his eyes.

 

18 August 1819

          Fortune smiles upon us, however weakly. When I woke this morning, I was met by a cloudless sky and favorable winds. My navigator assures me that we make good pace and may even arrive at London sooner than expected. I had hoped that this would prove as a morale booster for my men, who are in dire need of one, but they remain solemn. Though the skies are clear, a storm brews in each and every one of their weathered faces.

I also learned that, without my permission and during the night, the crew had created something of a sick bay. They cleared out a room hardly larger than a closet in the supply hold, where they intended to store the sick. They cited the possibility of whatever ailment they had being contagious as their reasoning, which I think is reasonable, but I suspect it has more to do with the incessant whispering. It’s that sort of sinister ambience, in combination with the sound of the waves and the creaking rocking of the boat, that makes for sleepless nights and fosters a madness independent of any mysterious illness.

          I allowed the men to dive into our cargo sparingly in hopes of offsetting their unease. Fine tobacco from Charleston, a pipeful of which I am sampling as I write this. I have made some available to the isolated few in the sick bay, but I doubt they’ll partake. The more recently ill man is growing more and more catatonic, and the earlier is now so consumed by his maddening whispers that he seems oblivious to all external stimulation. I hope that he will still be present in the morrow, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Captain Wardlow, The Ardent Fortune

 

19 August 1819

          The moon was still high in the sky whenever I was roused by a violent pounding on the door, urgent shouting from beyond it. I could only have been asleep for a few hours, but in that few hours, our circumstances leapt from the terribly unfortunate to bloody cursed. As I was informed, our lookout in the crow’s nest, eyes ordinarily peeled on the horizon for approaching rocks, pirate ship, or other, had by chance looked towards the deck and noticed spots of red staining the wood and shimmering with the moon’s reflection. On a ship, word travels in an instant. I was awoken moments later. Bloody footsteps rose from the hull and to the deck, eventually ending at the rail. I followed this trail down to the deepest reaches of our ship, the storage hull, wherein my men had created the sick bay in the back. As we grew nearer to the sick bay the amount of blood grew as rapidly as my dread. Pouring from the makeshift room itself was a large, sticky puddle, leaking out and into the rest of the storeroom and seeping into the old wood so that there was no way to enter without feeling and hearing a sopping sponginess beneath your boot. Inside, something that once resembled John Harrington, a long-time crew member of mine that had recently fallen ill, lie on the bloodied cot, mangled and dead. His skull was opened so unceremoniously that pink and red alike spattered the wall behind. Chunks of flesh were missing as if torn in several spots on his neck and shoulders, and his arms and abdomen were littered with claw like lacerations.

I have been sailing long enough to have witnessed murder on more than a few occasions. I know what it looks like when one man decides through wrath, envy, or a game of drunken cards gone wrong that another must die. The assault that John Harrington received did not resemble anything that a bare-handed man was capable of. This was inhuman and monstrous; unlike anything I have witnessed.

But the atrocity was committed by a human.

One who, immediately after committing it, walked directly above deck and to the edge of the ship where he presumably leapt to his grave, lost to whatever unfathomable depths lie beneath these unforgiving black waves. Of John Harrington, we decided to throw him overboard. Whether he had a family who may give him a funeral or not I cannot be certain, but if he had, it would cause them less pain to think him lost at sea than to have to gaze upon that mangled heap of blood and bone.

          The ship’s morale has suffered even further for this, as is to be expected. Even as we cleaned the gore there was a distrusting tension. A murderous paranoia. There was no way of telling who might be consumed by madness next, and of the mad, who might turn on his brother next to him and violently rend him from life. This paranoia came to a head sometime in the evening, when everyone had been silently at work and one’s muttering curses under his breath had drawn suspicion. Too akin to the whispers of the mad, another had leapt on him, presumably to restrain him and move him to the sick bay where the stench of death still thickened the air in an unbreathable way. When he resisted and his muttered curses grew to aggressive shouts aimed at the other, an all-out brawl ensued.

Brawls are not uncommon at sea, but they are made more dangerous yet when there are fewer and fewer hands on deck, of which there is a minimum requirement to run a ship, one that we were rapidly nearing. Before I could reach the deck to attempt to break up the fight, the accused had taken an anchor to the accuser’s skull, opening it and spilling its viscous half-solid contents on the deck as John Harrington’s had the wall.

          And so, we were down yet another body, with yet another entirely separate mess of gore to clean up before the day had even ended. I had briefly considered locking the relatively sane murderer up, but we are undermanned as it is. Even more so since, as the night began to fall, three more retired from their work early, returning to the crew’s quarters with fevers. By the time the rest joined them their illness had progressed far more rapidly than any before them had. They were already catatonic, their lips fumbling rapid-fire whispers, their eyes peeled wide and bloodshot. We once again stuffed them in the sick bay, but this time, we barricaded the door and posted a single man to guard them in two-hour shifts. If we can keep the whispering from their suicidal whims until London, perhaps there is a doctor that can treat them.

Now I hope for rest myself, but I can’t be sure it will be a fruitful one. The stress of running a damned ship is weighing on me. My hands shake as I pen this log, and a searing headache drills its way into my skull. Seldom do I drink while at sea, as a captain’s mind is his greatest tool – one that must be kept sharp. Tonight, however, I allow a bottle of whisky that has been collecting dust for years to ease me to sleep. If I survive, this will be my last journey at sea.

Captain Wardlow, The Ardent Fortune

 

20 August 1819

          As I had feared, my rest was anything but fruitful. The moment sleep had taken me, so too did terrifying nightmare. I found myself floating in an infinite blue-green darkness, it’s weight too extraordinary to move through, yet just crushing enough to barely keep from killing me. I felt this pain as if I was awake. An enormous, wholesale pressure across my entire body, threatening to cave in my chest and jettison my eyeballs from their sockets. I could not breathe. The pressure would not allow my lungs to expand, yet when I opened my mouth to attempt it water rushed in and filled them. I could taste its brine and feel it’s dark chill in my chest as it filled my lungs. I felt the burning ache that one does when they hold their breath for too long in perpetuity, never truly suffocating, yet never truly breathing either.

Panic ridden I struggled for far too long, until a deep, distorted rumbling consumed the space and shook my body. I stopped and looked for the source. I existed in a place of nothingness, but just barely visible straight ahead, a flat line spread from left to right as far as I could see in the same way that a horizon does. Yet where a horizon is typically where the sky meets the sea, here there was no sky. It and myself existed in a cold, watery void, alone together. And then it opened. The horizon parted and all that I could see became consumed by bright, burning, yellow with an iridescent blackened oval shape at the center. An eye, as large as existence itself, to say nothing of the thing attached to it, boring the immense weight of its focus directly on me.

I felt its focus in my mind.

 A high pitched, searing, maddening ringing transposed directly into my psyche. And then it began to speak. Tantalizing, unintelligible things beyond my ability to fathom, and if I tried to recreate them with mouth or pen, beyond human capability. They were secrets, and I cannot explain how I knew this. It was as if it had placed that understanding in my mind, and I felt a burning desire to learn more. To know everything it could tell me, no matter the effect on my mind, and I began to try and swim towards it.

That’s when a relentless pounding on the door of my chambers woke me. I shot up, peeling my face from the cold surface of my desk. I was drenched in feverous sweat, the bottle from the night prior empty in front of me. My chest heaved in a hyperventilatory way, relishing in the air, and I felt the chill of that void still. The pounding on the door continued, and I was forced to my feet to dress in a trembling half-drunk way and resume my duties as captain. I did my best to hide my state, which I then believed to be caused only by hangover and alcohol induced nightmare, lest the crew become mutinous and lock me in the sick bay with the whispering.

 Of the whispering, I was quickly informed of trouble. The man guarding the sick bay near the morning gave me his report. The whispering had become restless at some point. He could hear, at first, clawing at the barricaded door and then eventually a rhythmic thud, thud, thud, and then silence. An investigation could not be avoided, and so I grabbed my pistol and had two men follow me down.

There we discovered the silence to be a short lived one. Once more there was an animalistic clawing at the door. I readied my pistol and had the two men push the barrels we had used for barricading the door out of the way, and immediately the door swung open. Staring at me was a pale, sunken visage. Eyes yellow and unblinking, mouth moving and whispering at an incomprehensible speed. I could see his fingers were bloody, nails ripped from clawing at the door, and beneath him lie one dead, head caved in. Fear made my immediate instinct to pull the trigger, but I hesitated. He stared right through me as if I wasn’t there, and then began to move, shambling past us and towards the stairs. I grabbed his wrist to stop him and his nature changed in an instant. He was upon me with a monstrous strength unbecoming of his ill frailty, knocking me to the ground and ripping at my flesh.

He might have bit a chunk from my neck and killed me there had my men not held him back long enough for me to put the barrel of my pistol to his jaw and blow his brains against the ceiling. There was no time for the weight of that moment to set in before we heard yet more shambling, the third and final of the whispering moving past us, oblivious to the chaos and the violence. This one we did not try to stop, as it was apparent that that was what made them violent. Instead we followed him, towards the stairs, and then up. As we approached the deck, the remaining crew watched in shocked silence as well. It moved towards the rail and then slumped over it and fell with a splash, a bag of wet meat united with its desires. When we returned to the sick bay to further investigate and clean the dead, we discovered a bloody spattering in a central spot on the door. This in combination with the head injuries to the one that had died before we came down told us that the thudding the guard had heard was the man’s head relentlessly beating against the barrier until he had killed himself, wanting nothing more than to be united with the sea.

I can’t help but wonder what a better captain might do should he ever find himself in these terrifying circumstances, but I don’t believe that there is anything to be done apart from prayer. There are barely hands left to operate the boat, and my navigator, who has always been a keen reader of the skies, informs of a terrible storm brewing behind us. He thinks that we will avoid it yet if we maintain pace, but that is hard to do with half a crew —— half of which had all but given up on the idea of ever seeing land again.

Even more terrible yet is my worsening fever. I find myself growing frail and weak, seen less and less often above deck. I shan’t tell the crew of this lest they murder me on the spot, but when there is silence, I can hear something in the back of my mind. Fragments of barely audible whispers not my own. An uninvited guest lurking just beneath the surface. I am out of whisky. We are but days from London. I must stave madness. I must…

Captain Wardlow, The Ardent Fortune

 

I understand now that there are things far greater than human imagination could ever encompass, and of those things, terrifying secrets not just of the world, but of existence itself. One of those awesome things speaks to me now. It first touched me in dream and now I hear it always, an ever present companion to my own conscious, impossibly louder than it could ever be. It whispers to me those secrets and they move through my mind unstoppably to my mouth, where I reiterate uncontrollably in hopes of understanding.

                            I don’t understand.

                                              No one could.

But if we joined it… This… Voice lurking beneath the depths.

With that distance removed it could make us understand. I feel a compulsion to join it in a way that I’ve never been compelled to do anything before, where I can accept the maddening gifts it promises. The rest of the crew will come with me. They will thank me, if they’re able.

Now I will take my pistol…

          To the deck…

                 I will fill the helmsman’s head with lead…

I will take the wheel…

And turn us into the storm

We will join IT

 

BENEATH THE WAVES

 

 

Craig Harbold is a writer and a student out of rural Ohio. An English major at Kent State Tuscarawas, when he isn't writing or studying for class, he's writing fiction in whatever genre interests him at the time. With favorite writers such as John Langan, Dan Chaon, and of course H.P Lovecraft, he writes most frequently in horror.

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