“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream—alone…” — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

An oppressive, eerie silence haunted the remote sequestered cove like a dark spell. No otters or seals basked on the barren rampart of rocks or appeared amidst the kelp. A sinister presence had intruded into their midst.  A beleaguered whaling ship had sought haven there.

The mist-enshrouded pines stood like dark brooding sentinels arrayed in the last light of the dusk. As he pondered the enigmatic pellucid shore, the brooding captain shook himself irritably from the seduction of superstition so rife among seafarers. He was a practical man of enterprise with a quota of whale oil to fulfill for demanding patrons in New England.

He paced the deck impatiently like a lion in the confines of a cage. They had fled from a maelstrom that seemed to trail them like a vengeful poltergeist. Sheltered in that lonely haven of the cove, he pivoted to defiantly face the passing storm, like a mouse that had reached the sanctuary of his hole just ahead of a cat’s claws.

He studied the dark moon-ensplendoured waters, the canopy of the kelp forces undulating with the ebb tide. No otters and seals, aye…but one…a pale seal had followed in their wake just as they had reached sight of shore.

At first, the men had found him an amusing companion and cast scraps of fish to him…he ignored them and left the morsels untouched. He seemed to only look at the captain with an unnerving, expressionless dark gaze that seemed to look hungrily at him instead with strangely human eyes…then his enigmatic presence took on a darker aspect, as he seemed to be a harbinger of misfortune every time he was sighted.

But he had less cryptic concerns that bedeviled him. The quarry had proven maddeningly elusive. The migrating herds of whales had been hunted relentlessly for their oil that lighted the newly industrialised cities. Their numbers had dwindled as the harpoons of the whaling fleets struck again and again. His patience for setbacks had waned accordingly.

He had ordered a clumsy young sailor to be flogged excessively for falling asleep at his post. He had wrenched the cat o’ nine tails from the bosun’s hand and personally administered the excessive punishment. He had reduced the quivering back to bloody shreds. Infection had set into the ragged wounds he had inflicted, displacing his impotent rage onto his bound victim. The youth writhed in fevered sleep, raving of home.

The crew had left the sultry island nights, the palms and sapphiric waters and cerulean skies of Maui far behind in their wake. The stars that had graced their nights, inspired their eyes, and guided their way had been obscured as they reached the far western shore.

He stood aloof scanning the shoreline, his mind straying, oblivious to the sinister whispers of mutiny swirling around him. Many of the sailors were grizzled veterans of whaling voyages. They knew him for a novice who meant to compensate for his self-conscious incompetence with tyranny. The men avoided his eyes as they conspired.

His breath steamed in the chill air as he sighed deeply. He looked at the locket containing a portrait of a wealthy heiress above his station that he was courting. He meant to improve his fortunes and stand by this bloody lucrative trade. His eyes were not melancholy. She was only another prize to him. He was no man of sentiment. Widows would curse his name. He scourged men and slaughtered whales in front of their calves.

He remembered his first kill. A pod of whales was driven into the abattoir of the red cove. The whale herd had formed a protective circle around their calves as he and his crew closed in. He remembered how a whale breached, mortally wounded, thrashing and shuddering spasmodically as its last breath rose in a crimson vapour.

Meanwhile, an old Ohlone shaman looked on desolately from the sea cliffs, feeling older than the hills as the whales were slaughtered. He clutched his chest as if he could feel the harpoons tangibly impale him inside. He chanted sacred forbidden words as he turned and hobbled to the cove. He marked the name of the ship, the distinctive figurehead of a gowned woman’s pale face. He sensed….sensed that the butcher enjoyed it….

The rite of the “skinwalker” began by the apparitional glow of the moon. He had been cautioned against the ritual of metamorphosis by his predecessor…it was dangerous to body and soul. His wounds pulsed in the cold, wounds he had suffered at the hands of the Spaniard missionaries. Pain that reminded him that he had reason to live and reason to kill.

Now the captain drew a flintlock pistol and fired a single shot into the air hailing the lone shoreside cabin, the hermitage of its solitary tenant who hosted the procession of ships as they stalked the whale herds along this windswept shore. There was a lingering expectant silence as the shot echoed and re-echoed amid the otherworldly rock formations. He sensed something was terribly amiss.

“Put out a boat,” he ordered expressionlessly, yet his eyes betrayed unease past the sculpted façade. Hanging from the skeletal branches of a tree was the freshly-killed covekeeper.

“Suicide?” a sailor ventured. “The loneliness must have got to him/”

“No…his torso’s been eviscerated like he was hunted…no. It’s been cut ritualistically. It’s like he was sacrificed.”

The features were contorted in a final terrible agony as his body swayed in the cold winds that whispered their nocturne through the dark pines. A shrine of abalone shells and bleached whale ribs had been raised around him. A mural of whales had been painted in blood on the cabin.

The door to the cabin was left ajar…one of the men reluctantly pushed it open and recoiled. aghast at the sight of the slain man’s assistant nailed to the wall by a harpoon, its shaft pointing accusingly at them.

“Savages got them.”

He cursed.

“Rally the men…summon them here. Their heathen village is not far. If we don’t make an example of them, no whaler crew will be safe in these waters. Take cutlasses, shot, and rifles from the arsenal and set out the longboats.”

“We’ve already emptied the arsenal, sir.”

“I gave no such order.”

“We weren’t waiting for no orders, sir. We were just waiting for when you weren’t watching. Setting a course back to Maui after that.”

The full import of the words struck home.

“You’ve mutinied.”

“We have, ye bloody mad tyrant.”

The angry wound under the glaring eye of the ringleader of the mutineers met his eyes. From the mist-wreathed pines, drums throbbed ominously, drawing nearer.

“Take the boats and let’s shove off, lads. We’re marooning him.”

“You…you pirates can’t leave me here!”

His hand slid to the pistol in his coat pocket.

He gasped and fell as a throwing dagger struck his knee. It buckled as he fell. His pistol was dropped and kicked away.

“Don‘t leave me, damn you!” he sobbed into the sands and the rising tide. “Damn this cursed place forever.”

The captain’s desperate gaze strayed to the water where the seal’s albino head watched like a gloating skull. The beast was as pale and maddening as the full sanguine moon. The drumbeat quickened in synchrony with his heart. He remembered a recurring nightmare that had tortured his sleep. As disembodied sailor shanties and cryptic tribal incantations ushered him into a strange vision, he felt the sensation of falling into shockingly cold dark fathoms. The siren’s call of the whales swept his soul swept his soul beckoningly…ever deeper. The wind sighed over the ebony waves, swaying the torn masts of sunken galleons like torn banners as restless shadows reveled in the submerged necropolis.

Bioluminescent particles swirled around armour-clad conquistador skeletons who had gone down with their ships. The skeletal hands of drowned mariners beckoned to him…

”Join us brother…join us…” they rasped.

And by the spectral moonbeams filtering through the dark surface, the pale seal hovered in the eerie danse macabre of undersea shadows cast on the shipwrecks, overgrown with kelp. His eyes snapped open to the present and there confronting him was the Ghost Seal.

“Alright, you sea devil. You want me, then?!”

He crawled to the threshold of the shockingly cold sea. Then he rose swaying and steadied himself, crutching on a harpoon. He looked into the dark, soulless eyes of the seal and saw himself mirrored in Gemini as two skulls. The seal bared fangs like a hound that had cornered its cowering quarry for a dark huntsman. Its eyes smoldered crimson by moonlight, like reopened wounds, still reflecting his face as if he were looking up from submerged perspective in tide pools of blood.

The eyes of other sea animals returning to the cove gleamed red like a circle of lit candles. He loomed over the seal and slashed down at it with a wild shriek with the scrimshaw-hilted dagger. The seal drew back gracefully, completely in its element. He slashed again and the seal seemed to dissolve into the reflection of moonbeams shimmering on the surface. He saw only his face reflected in the sea like a distorted carnival mirror.

“Damn this place! Curse it forever!”

He tried to struggle ashore but the tides had him, his limbs flailing as the waves pulled him down. He groped for the shore and lay chest heaving, half-surfaced, and paused in wonder as he looked up at the gaunt figure of the shaman in a pale fur coat adorned with rare sea shells and dark pearls.

The enigmatic figure seem to look through him as he stood aloft a sandstone promontory, overlooking the cove, having beckoned teeth and hunger from the depths as a huntsman would his hounds with a song at his lips, like an Atlantean lord calling to his guard and the sharks answer.

He raised his hands, closing his eyes as if conjuring a storm.

Small flames appeared like vampire bites opening in the night as fire arrows were ignited by the warriors behind him.

The arrows flared as they arced above the cauldron of seething water and streaking amid the whalers as they prepared to raise their sails. A row of men gathered to return fire with a volley of rifles scattered as lanterns were kicked over and shattered. Flames began to spread, greedily enveloping the ship.

The last battle cry of the night exploded visibly in the chill air as the arrows ceased. Oblivious to the carnage, the convalescing, wounded young sailor rose from the fevered visions of the men who sought to throw him overboard. The long boat fell screaming to another flight of fire arrows and the pulleys slowly lowering the boat broke, sending the boat swiftly to the ocean. It drifted from the burning ship as it was reduced to a floating inferno.

Hands of drowning men grasped at the oarless, boat threatening to capsize it. Yet the great sharks that had followed in the wake of the whaling ship, instinctively knowing death sailed with her, pulled the thrashing sailors under. By the grey morning, light otters played happily with the captain’s finely tailored coat and gold buttons. A wounded seal struggled awkwardly to the water, trailing blood from a blade wound on its flippers, looking dazed and disoriented, as if a prisoner in a new form. No ships on the horizon to hail.

It went after the coat that it once knew in another body, but the otters pulled it away, chattering like children excited with a new toy on Christmas morning. Some mauled bodies washed ashore amid the charred debris of ships. Some floated in the rising tide, picked at by scavenging sea birds, but there was one who yet drew breath.

He was rolled onto his back by a brave, but his poised blade was staid. The shaman had seen the wounds of the lash, remembered when he had been bound to a stake and whipped by a padre for being overheard praying to the old gods.

“Take him to the healers…gently now…he’s frail from the ordeal and wounds.”

He looked at the seal as it struggled awkwardly onto a rock, eyes looking out to the horizon searchingly for a passing ship. The shaman turned away with a sigh that seemed ventriloquised by the sigh of the waves in its eternal song to the shore.