They called it a voyage of discovery. We'd spent years financing, marketing, and building it - the Dowager, which was to be an authentic replica of the kind of carrack that had been so prominent during the Age of Sail. Attracting a crew of enthusiasts and thrill-seekers, historians and sailing afficianados had also led to a bleed-through where the media got excited about it, the same way as normal. A spotlight was shown of our ship, our crew, and our mission - to reach some of the farthest waters in the ocean with a three-masted vessel.
I'm sure you've heard about how the boat drifted back without even a skeleton crew - I know as little as anyone, and won't repeat that story here. I'll simply tell you my experience for you to believe, or doubt, as you like.
Back in the day, a figurehead was selected for a ship - it gave the ship a purpose, and some say powers all it's own. Idle talk was that the prow of a ship was it's spirit - but since none of us could agree on a figurehead for the ship, we decided that one of us would be a metaphorical figurehead - for the project and the journey as a whole. I still don't know why I was selected, though I have ideas - but wading through the media blitz was painful for us, and passing that responsbility onto me allowed the rest of our team to work on finishing the vessel.
In the past I suppose I would've told you about the Dowager with excitement, but I can't really bring myself to say a word about it now. It was a ship - it was designed to cut through the water and ride the winds. It was built of strong wood and modern techniques, but designed to perfectly imitate the romantic image you might have if you have ever thought of a time when maps were supposedly incomplete and there were still places that existed between the lines of contact and commerce.
We'd stocked up enough - in this case, very modern - supplies for our crew of fourty intended to last a year, two if rationed properly and supplemented. Weather was good, and the press was calling our voyage a lot of things - if you read papers from the time, I believe one of them said of it that we were tracing the steps of the past to unearth the secrets of the future, or something to that effect. But by the time we were actually ready to sail? The furor had died down, and so had our energy. We were ready to be on the sea - but somehow, all the energy that gone into building the Dowager had dissipated as quickly as it had arrived.
And so those first days on the water were spent quietly, furtively. No one talked to one another. Cranson, supposedly from Denmark, was constantly playing on his ukulele - a lonely sound against the wind and the waves. He got into a fight over another crewmen, one of the men, whose name I didn't know; the other man fell into the water, and though we pulled him out quickly enough, it was an auspciious start for our journey.
But then - there was a period where it was what we'd set out to do. Where the world around us - plains, and tankers, and rigs - everything just vanished. We'd passed the great garbage coast, as they were calling what had once been largely unnoticeable petrochemical waste, and were on clear water - with neither rain nor cloud above.
That was when I came down with it.
I first noticed the lumps under my fingernails. They didn't hurt - but they stuck out slightly, under the nails proper. If I moved my hands too quickly, they hurt - and though I won't go into the details, there were was more to them then that... And more of them. We had two doctors with us, and I'd had some medical training myself - diagnoses were floated, but we largely managed to keep in good cheer about how the whole thing. We joked that maybe it was bad luck that the 'Figurehead' of our ship should suffer such poor luck, and I was recommended bedrest and isolation while the rest of our crew continued to explore.
For a long time, I slept. I don't remember how long or when I finally was able to get to sleep over the sound of Cranson's ukulele and the waves, but when I did, I slept for ages - a long sleep, interupted by dreams of land and strange fruits that looked like human beings, and fell from the trees ripe and full of rich, green juice. They split open upon the beaches, and the beaches disappeared into my dreams - and I was alone.
When I woke up, it was to the sound of fighting above. My condition had degenerated significantly. Thurmond told me it seemed to be leprosy, but the look in his eyes told me that was obviously not the case. I'm sure a lot of you know about leprosy - but did you know it's preventable, controllabe, and treatable effectively with modern medicine..?
Thurmond later told me they'd tried putting me on multi-drug treatment programs while I slept. Nothing had been effective, and the changes had continued.
And the changes were - my skin had grown numerous blemishes, the dark scars you can see now. They weren't boils or blisters or even wounds - the skin had grown inward, it felt like - it seemed mushy, sodden, and when they grew around my lungs it hurt to breath.
The fighting I mentioned was about me - about my condition. Most of the crew wanted to throw me off the boat, seeing my condtion as an ill omen. There were talks about blaming it on a pacific storm, about explaining the disease to our friends and family back home - but finally, the energy wore itself sick, and it was decided that I would be kept in the lowest level of the ship - away from sight, and away from them.
I screamed and struggled, but I was weak - and afraid. The bottom level of the ship was meant to hold supplies, but there was a level below that - technically below water, though a 'deck' had been rigged via a hatch above sealine that I could use to stare into the water, and take care of my hygeine. It was a narrow slit in the boat, and occasionally salt water droplets would drip through it, even when shut.
And that's where I spent the rest of our voyage. My routine was the same from day to day - I would wait, alone, and carve the day that I felt had passed on part of the wood, and I admit I was sloppy. I stopped carving them in the same place and instead chose to do so haphazardly and randomly - but I restrainted myself from carving the same day twice, even though it would've been something to do.
I slept frequently, but tried to time it so that I could remember how long I had slept, and whether it had been for a day or for a few hours. And every day, when evening had come, someone would place a meal for me to consume. Sometimes I'd be awake and it'd be fresh - othertimes, I would sleep through it's arrival, and it would be cold, or wet, or...
It went on for a year, I think.
The thoughts I had were - had we reached land? Had we ever reached home and I simply become so ill, so far gone that I hadn't noticed? But of course I would notice, it's impossble not to notice something like a triple-master pulling into harbour; and yet the thoughts plagued me even worse then the dreams.
And one day, my meal didn't arrive. I was sure it had been a mistake, probably my mistake - but I waited another day, and no sign of food arrived. I couldn't find the courage to investigate until I heard the boat crash into land - but somehow, that managed to make the temurity that had settled over me disappear, if only for a bit. The light was painfully bright, and despite supposedly being in the middle of the pacific - we seemed to have hit land.
No one was on the boat, and no one was present on land. But I looked on that sandbar, that slice of beach that shouldn't have been - the clothes of each and every crew member had been removed and neatly piled by the beach, and thirty-nine sets of footsteps marched in linkstep into the distance - even though they continued where no land was.
It was cowardly, but I ran. My bones were weak and frail from the illness, but they seemed strong now - strong enough to take me away from the gloating of the light and back into the safety of my darkness under the brig. I waited there, shivering despite the warmth, unsure of what to do.
The sound of the hatch above opening paralyzed me - as an unseen hand placed a meal down amongst the hold, and the hatch drew shut.