Saturnius McWhirr stories
The bewitching breezes that had vexed our northerly course along the bleak, rocky coast gaveway to an absolute calm as we steamed into Sunda Kelepa Harbour and brought up under the ornate, lofty spires of Jakarta. It was as though the anchorage were under the spell of somevengeful deity that held the stagnant seaport in irons– a fitful sleep of waking dream.I gazed up at Jakarta’s towers and heard, high on the ramparts, Rama’s gong-struck plea to deliver a flute-weeping Sita from Ranga’s jangling curse. A sword held against a blood-red sky by masked Barong tragediennes brought down the threadbare, red curtain in the ritual re- enactment of the primal leave-taking and arrival; when carved gods glared from the bowsprit, holding vigilant watch against marauders while we were moored off the savage isle of dreams. I too, have sat hungry around those ancestral fires, a villan, hero or common swab, subject to the changeable turns of karmic law..
.“Skip lively, Mister Spencer.”
The resonant voice was hoarse, as if weathered by eternal watches on the Greenland ice, or worn ragged from hurling oaths into the teeth of a gail. I flaked out 5 fathoms of chain from the locker with hamfisted elegance.
“Nicely done, lad. Ye’ll be a sailor before long.”
McWhirr is a pain in the ass sometimes. He’s a relic of working sail and can be as dark as Ahab in rehab on a bad hair day. He stood stark against the red sky like a weathered piling on a rocky cape. Light flickered through the dark shrouds, his shadow looming on the limp stays’l behind him, as if projected on a movie screen. The harrowing passage through the Sunda Strait had frayed my nerves and I groped clumsily the 3/8ths chain from the locker.
“All right, Mister Spencer.”
I let go the anchor. There sounded a low rumble as I paid out 3 fathoms of chain into the muddybottom of Sunda Kelapa Harbour.
“Have you paid out enough scope, lad?”
“I cast the anchor in 6 fath…” I said.
“Avast, Ya greenhorn! You don’t “cast” anchors. This isn’t fly-fishing! My gorge rises at suchlubberly misuse of sailing language.”
His wrath, like a line-squall, subsided as rapidly as it came.
“Did you know that to raise an anchor you must first let it go?”
“That’s true, sir.”
He always makes these pithy pronouncements like they were scripture. And, for McWhirr the act of sailing is a religious rite. He hails from Zoroastrian, Quaker stock and, for him, a ship is a vessel to carry his weary spirit ascending through the 7 concentric spheres of corporeality to the final landfall of essential being. He has seen the beatific vision reflected on the sea’s mirror and it draws him ever northward in search of the true face of divinity behind the mask of appearance.
Captain Lanyard bent over a yellowed chart: “There’s death at every bend of this blasted river. There are treacherous sandbanks that can sink this tin-pot vessel in seconds and bandits that will slit your throat for a song. Here,” he pointed a bony finger at the chart, “is the passage of Is Geria. Winds can funnel between those rocks like the fiends of hell.”
“Aye, on top of that, the very guards appointed by the museum trustees who sponsor these excavations deal in the illicit trade of artifacts. Their collusion with Turkish authorities can land innocent shippers like us in jail. Are ye ready to ship out on such a mission, lad?”
He turned again to the window and said:
“The illicit trade in antiquities is nearly as old as civilization itself. These sites had already been plundered in ancient times by nomad treasure seekers who sold to dealers in Bagdad. Babylon was already a ruin when Alexander the Great tried, unsuccessfully, to restore the glories of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.”
“Now the plunder is conducted on an industrial scale by the Levant Company. The stones of Ishtar’s Temple are looted to build the brutal towers of Tomorrowland and the stolen images of the Holy Immortals now entice consumers, like sheep, into endless malls of mediocrity. This must be stopped.”
The Samamaris steamed past the tents of goat herds and armed horsemen whose dark eyes followed her wake with unconcealed contempt.
At last, we came the to archeological site led by the Reverend Cornelius Pritchard who, under the auspices of the Philadelphia Academy, had undertaken excavations to find physical verification of Biblical scripture. The sensational finds of British archeologists had awakened an American interest in antiquity, and this, along with a fervor to prove the superiority of the Christian faith, had led these august bodies to sponsor digs in Mesopotamia.
Captain Lanyard yelled out the wheelhouse door: “Man the docklines! Ya swab!”
He then hailed the engine room:
“Slowly now, Mister Budge…”
I threw the docklines to a stout man on the dock who I took to be Reverend Pritchard.
“Welcome Brethren,” he called.
We made fast, and walked up the bank toward the encampment while the Reverend held forth with pious, stentorian eloquence:
“Yes pilgrims, We’ve found potsherds in an alluvial deposit at 60 feet. Below that, with God’s blessing, we are certain to find the lost city of the Nephilim– those whose evil ways brought down God’s wrath with a devastating flood!”
Just then, there was the loud report of a gunshot. A bullet whizzed overhead.
“Hit the deck!” yelled Captain Lanyard. We dove behind a low dune.
The Reverend said: “It’s the blasted French atheists!”
He grabbed a carbine and returned fire, all the while expostulating in fine preacherly style:
“The nihilist heretics are encamped yonder. Thy want to reach the pre-deluvial city in a missguided effort to prove that the Good Book is fiction–that the site proves the layers below the silt deposits are merely evidence of a recurrent, natural phenomenon. They will soon regret the errors of their blasphemous ways when they are consigned to eternal hellfire!”
With that, he fired a volley into the mud brick of a distant mound.
There was silence. Then a loud oath was heard from the opposite camp:
The bewitching breezes wafting from the intermediate zone that had vexed our northerly course along the bleak, rocky coast gave way to an absolute calm as we stood off the rank harbor of Virtual Babylon. It was as though the anchorage were under the spell of some vengeful deity that held the stagnant seaport in irons-a fitful sleep of waking dream.
McWhirr called from the wheelhouse:
“All right, Mister Spencer.”
I let go the anchor. The silence was broken by a low rumble as I paid out 3 fathoms of chain into the muddy bottom of Moloch Bay.
After 2 weeks of foul headwinds and devilishly flukey breezes, we were ready to don shore-going rig for a nice row to an ancient, stone pub at the head of a dilapidated wharf to splice, as they say, the proverbial main-brace.
The melancholy treble of a loon-bot echoed over the still anchorage as McWhirr sat in the bows of the skiff brooding upon the lurid, crimson sea. Not wanting to disturb his meditations, I rowed on.
I’d heard Saturnius McWhirr was a pious man of Quaker stock who had fallen into some branch of the Zoroastrian persuasion. Or was it some Sufic offshoot of Shi’ism whose adherents await the 12th Imam’s return and wander the storm-wracked shores of this world seeking some vestige of a golden age–a relic safeguarded from the literalist creed by occult signs that can be decoded only in the secret halls of pure imagination?
Be that as it may, McWhirr gazed into the offing as the violet light of dusk fell over his weathered brow and said:
“I first heard of the Babylonian Theme Park when but a nipper on my grandfather’s knee. He told me of the Neo-Art Exhibition, the wonders of the Pharmaceutical Pavilion and how he touched the robe of the King of Wall-mart. He told me yarns of how it’s foundations had first been laid in the 21st Century by drones captured during the great cyber wars.”
“But,” continued McWhirr with a tone of caution, “he also told a darker tale. He said the streets were paved with sorrow, the walls built with the grief of mothers who toiled over an illusory harvest, it’s ramparts manned by desiccated souls who invested all their goods in the virtual fun-house of Mammon.”
“Yes sir,” I said though, in my green youth, I could scarce fathom the depths of his narration..
We landed the skiff and walked the cobbled street toward the the ancient, stone pub. Soon, my attention was caught by the droning whirr of something hovering overhead.
Could this be one of the fabled harpies that had long plagued unwary mariners who sail these latitudes–these droning machines of evil and ubiquitous surveillance that kill with rockets as well as with the bland, droning sameness that reduces our citizenry to penile servitude to the sexless god of materialism?
McWhirr drew his cutlass and, slashing at the malignant thing, thundered:
“Get thee hence, instrument of Satan!”
“Hang on to yer hat, lad. Looks like we’re in for a dusting.” McWhirr pointed at the darkening horizon and commanded: “Ready to man the pumps.”
I scrambled aft and pulled the aged, bronze pump from the lazarette before looking up to see the immense, glassy wall looming over the masthead like the adamant finale of doomsday.
Old Hand rose up the vertical wall to its breeze-feathered crest and launched skyward with a spray of rainbow light. It was as if she sought escape from her natural element, to take her place amid the constellations as guide to unborn mariners of this tropic-this weary globe where man has long toiled on the treacherous seas.
We landed in the trough with a bone-jarring crash as the wave broke with a deafening roar astern.
Old Hand yawed like a stunned boxer shaking off a vicious right hook and steadied up, ready to meet the next one. We mounted the second wave of the set and were again hurled down it’s backside, until I thought we might sound the very depths of the Mariana trench.
Each time McWhirr counted each wave until, after the 8th had thrown us rudely on our beam-ends, he said: “This is it, lad-the 9th wave. Say yer prayers, this may be the end of our pleasant, little cruise.”
The sight that met my eyes as I braced against the wheelhouse was enough to make Blackbeard blanch and Ahab drop to his knees and beg for mercy.
“No, it can’t be that big,” I said, upon seeing the wave’s awesome height. It’s aspect was all the more terrible for its calm refulgence-as gleaming and resolute as an executioner’s ax. The crystalline beauty of it seemed to mock all our puny efforts to survive.
Again, we faced the interminable ascent. As it jacked up over the reef, it turned a back-lit, emerald-green hue.
Good reader, we’ve all heard how time stands still, and the imagination falls prey to odd fancies in times of extreme terror. So it was with me. I thought I saw strange shapes in that massive beast of a sea-spectral figures who swam before my eyes and vanished again like mackerel flashing upon the wave’s face. One such apparition was dressed in a flowing white shirt and tight pants. He had the angelic look of one inspired by the muses and held, in his delicate hand, a goose-quill pen. His melodic words seemed to echo above the dismal keening of gulls that circled overhead:
…My spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am born darkly, fearfully afar…
Poetry from Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelly
Attention! Attention! Tsunami alert! Tsunami alert!
The speakers on the church walls crackled over the dismal howl of sirens.
Dust of crumbled masonry rose from the collapsed reliquary amid screams and prayers for deliverance. I ran into the streets and made for Old Hand. I leaped onto the dock as the engine roared to life above the frenzied tumult of the throng. McWhirr had just cast off the dock lines when a repulsive splog pirate wielding a cutlass grabbed my monkey jacket and said in a malodorous, rasping tone: “Are you sure you want to close your Babylon account?”
A blast from the ship’s deck sent him sprawling into the rank harbor. McWhirr threw aside his smoking musket and hauled me over the rail before jamming the ship full throttle and steaming for deep water. A glazzy spam-bot, with wires dangling from her stove-in side, gushed at McWhirr as we bore away from the pier-head: “Look! It’s Gregory Peck! I saw you on MeTube. Can I have your autograph?”
We headed for open sea just as a group of cyber-ruffians thundered onto the wharf with a volley of deprecatory oaths and small arms fire.
Once clear of musket range, I lifted my head above the rail to inhale the sea air. It lay calm and of a such a limpid sheen that I fell into tranquil revery. It felt as if all the fetid smog of Babylon were dispelled by the sweet Levantine zephyrs that wafted over the sun-dappled main like Mother Gaia’s beneficent caress. I silently offered a prayer for the gentle hand that had rocked the Adamic cradle of mankind. It was as if I quaffed from the verdant spring of the mystic Green One of Araby-that master of masterless souls who wander the globe’s Byzantine seaways seeking the vivifying elixir of immorality.
“Look sharp, Mister Spencer.”
McWhirr’s cautionary words roused me to behold the distant horizon demarcated by an edge of deep ultramarine blue that advanced steadily upon our gallant ship.
“We’re in for some fun and games now.”