I am a butcher by trade. That’s what I tell my fellow passengers of merchants, their wives, soldiers, and able-bodied seamen – not that you would ken they were able after letting our mother ship, a French frigate by the name of Medusa, run aground in an exercise of high negligence.
So we sit here, on a shambles of a raft, praying for salvation, measuring rations and trying to find solace in sleep. But mostly our days are busy with waiting. The women and the weak are the first to die, crazed with hunger and thirst, cursing the sun during the day and lamenting its absence at night. It’s a relief when their mouths hang slack and their bodies lie still. They are pushed out to sea where they float awhile before sinking, along with my heart which baulks at the waste.
There are squabbles about fair space for sleeping quarters as well as the doling out of fresh water. But we save our strongest words for Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, the aristocratic arse who doubled up as captain. Not for him the honour of being last man on board. Once the raft was complete, he hared onto a lifeboat with the other nobility, all the while stuffing our ears with promises of being towed to land. Four boats dragged us along before a soldier from each lifted an arm and brought a sword down upon the ropes.
There is a woman who keeps glancing over. It is no lie that I am a bonny fellow and so I shuffle my way through a row of prostrate bodies, holding my breath against the stench of unwashed backsides. She makes a space and I coorie in, keeping my arms at my sides so as not to offend her with my reeking oxters. Her name is Claudine.
That night there is a muckle great fight over drinking water. Half our number end up tossed in the rough seas and Claudine clings to me as I hold firm against the four brutes determined to rid the raft of thirsty mouths. Come morning there is a glut of carved-up corpses. The ship’s surgeon insists the bodies are given to the sea.
‘Who will chronicle our tale of woe?’ someone whines as the last body slides in.
The answer we all share but do not utter, is no-one.
On the ninth day I approach the ship’s surgeon and motion my hand to my mouth. ‘Nous devons manger’.
He flails his hands and utters in French something akin to, ‘The rations they gave us have gone. What do you want me to do?’
I point to a man, freshly dead, and gesture again. The surgeon’s face alights with horror. ‘Vous êtes an animal’.
I do not break my stare. His righteousness changes as he takes in the suffering of those left, most of them hanging on to Life’s skirts by finger and thumb. That evening he sanctions the eating of flesh.
Well, what a fash folk get into, crossing themselves and pointing to the sky. But, I notice, a few keep purse-lipped.
It becomes a ceremony. The surgeon slices off slivers from the backside of the ship’s engineer (a right eejit) and passes me the first piece with a combative look. I hold that look, take the strip and chew. The others are repulsed, and yes, fascinated too. There is even one, Gascon, the ship’s cook, who leans forward, soundlessly moving his lips. More slices are passed around. Folk eat without chewing, swallow without tasting. Three refuse to participate. By morning their bodies are added to our larder.
Even though I sit under the shade of shirts and skirts (every part of the human can be utilised), my throat is so dry I cannot swallow. Half-delirious, I stroke Claudine’s hair. It reminds me of my wife’s – my wife who denounced me to the high-minded authorities of Edinburgh toon. An abominable creature she called me, saying I was born unnatural and perverse. By the time the pious folk of the law came for me, I was already sailing on foreign seas with my sights funnelled forward.
On the twelfth day Gascon spies a ship. It cuts through the glass-smooth water like a knife, a great wooden apparatus, unafeart of the sea. The three of us still alive watch it’s journey till it veers right. A taste of life cruelly snatched away! Gascon’s wailing fills the air before he sinks into a stupor. Two hours later the mirage returns. It’s bulk grows before our eyes. My heart hammers out a tattoo of joy and I set about clearing the strips of meat, hurling them into the water. I shove out the rest of our larder, including what’s left of Claudine. She will be appreciated by the sea creatures, an honest, non-judging lot.
Gascon and the surgeon sit listlessly, their shoulders nudging in time to the tide, their shirts and breeks soiled with shite and blood. Their eyes follow me as I sweep our floating abattoir free of evidence. They glare, for they ken me by now.
And I ken them – I ken they’ll keep their tongues still, and not go clacking to the authorities. I ken they’ll turn their minds from these twelve days, cutting out memories, hacking away responsibility, slicing at guilt. They will not chronicle our tale of woe. When it comes down to it, we are all animals.
After winning a poetry competition at the age of eleven, Sharon Boyle basked in the glory for more than three decades before once again getting down to some serious writing. Her short stories and flash have appeared in Retreat West, Fictive Dream, Writers’ Forum, HISSAC, Exeter Writers and Cranked Anvil. She awaits the day she can swap her part-time job for full-time writing. She tweets as @SharonBoyle50.