Image by Maret Hosemann from Pixabay
This story was written for the Reedsy contest "Just the Beginning".
More specifically in the context of the prompt: "Write a story that starts by establishing its setting in a different time period — without explicitly stating what that period is."
Bad winds had blown us off course. We were in waters unknown to mankind. At present, there was no wind to bring us back on track. If anywhere, we were drifting further away from our destination.
I noticed that this happened at an increasing speed. That didn't make sense to me and I worried about it. Both the helmsman and the captain were aware of this inexplicable phenomenon, but they asked me not to inform the other members of the crew to avoid unnecessary panic.
All things considered, this was an excellent opportunity for me as a scholar —and as a "scientist", as I liked to call myself when no one was listening— to write an account of all the wonders our journey into uncharted territory would reveal.
The more seasoned seamen used the calm of the sea to tell each other unbelievable tales, one more horrific than the other, giving fresh shipmates who also listened sleepless nights.
“Five years ago,” one-eyed Joe recounted, “I was on a ship that was attacked by a monster with eight tentacles, each of which was longer than our mainmast. The ship was wrecked, and I thought I was lost. I saved myself by making a raft on which I floated for days together with two other shipmates. Eventually, we stranded on a desert island. We would still be marooned there if we hadn’t been lucky enough to be picked up by a ship mooring for supplies and fresh water.”
While the crew hung on his lips as his story went on, I wrote every detail of his description in my notebook, adding my own comments. I had seen octopuses before, and what he was describing seemed like a gigantic exemplar of the species. I thought of the drawings I had seen on the maps of our flat earth that I had studied before engaging in this trip. Some of them depicted a creature called The Kraken that matched one-eyed Joe's characterization.
When one-eyed Joe finally stopped talking, Bald Eddy snorted: “An animal with only eight arms? That’s nothing! A ship I was on was once assailed by a monster with no less than twelve tentacles, a cat’s tail, and six dog’s heads ringed around its waist. It may have been smaller than the beast you encountered, but it wasn’t less devastating. it entered the ship, killing everyone aboard but me. I hid in a barrel that was knocked overboard.”
“Did that happen in the Mediterranean Sea?” I asked.
“Yes, it did!” Bald Eddy answered, surprised that a scholar took belief in his story. He looked at me as if he suspected I was going to trick him into saying something I could refute to make fun of him. “I washed up on the shores of Sicily. How did you know?”
“There are stories of such a monster that go back to ancient times. It was called Scylla. You must have encountered a specimen of its offspring.”
Bald Eddy nodded complacently, happy to accept my explanation as an endorsement of the truthfulness of his adventure.
The crew now looked at me. Throughout the journey, they had always shunned me. I was the silent passenger. I don’t think they liked me much. As far as they were concerned, I was the one who was always writing, never doing any "actual work".
The least I could do, was to entertain them now that there was little else to do on the ship. I had been studying the Bible for whole my life, but more recently, I had taken a more than healthy interest in the stories of the ancient mythology. The curriculum of a scholar comprised a selection of works of Greek and Roman authors. However, I also read some forbidden books that made me think differently of the world as we knew it.
Obviously, I couldn’t talk with anyone about my findings and I certainly didn’t want to bore the ship’s crew with my musings about the rebirth of the science of the ancient philosophers.
Instead, I choose to tell a tale as written down by Homer: “Scylla lived on one side of a narrow channel, opposite to another monster called Charybdis. Ships trying to navigate the channel had to choose between Scylla and Charybdis. You’ve already heard from Bald Eddy what Scylla was capable of, but Charybdis may have been even worse.”
Bald Eddy looked suspiciously at me once more, but he decided he’d be the judge of which monster was the most dangerous one once I’d finished my story.
“Three times a day, Charybdis came out from under his rock,” I continued, “swallowing up a huge amount of water, then belching it all back out again. If you were nearby when this happened, your ship could be swallowed by the creature, or dragged to the bottom of the sea because of the whirlpools caused by the creature.”
“Phew,” said Bald Eddy. “That’s not nearly as scary as that Scylla I encountered.”
Just as I wanted to open my mouth to argue with him, the ship’s lookout yelled at us from the crow’s nest. I didn’t understand what he said, but the crew hurried towards the prow of the ship.
“It’s Charybdis,” I heard one of the shipmates scream.
Everyone started talking through each other, some grown men started to cry.
“No, it isn’t,” Bald Eddy’s voice drowned out the anxious wail of the other seamen. “It’s the world’s edge!”
The captain called the crew to order. Everyone had to leave the fore-deck. A moment later, the captain, the helmsman and myself were looking through our monocular. What we saw was frightening. We were heading towards a waterfall that spanned as far as we could see from our left to our right.
“Well, that explains why we kept on moving faster despite having no wind,” the helmsman said.
“We need a good wind to steer us away from that ledge,” the captain said.
At that moment, the lookout shouted more alerting news to all hens on deck: “There’s an enormous snake heading towards us on starboard side.”
“Leviathan!” I said in awe when I saw the snake’s head through my monocular. This too was an animal of which I had seen drawings on maps. The maps didn’t lie; it was the type of animal one could expect at world’s end.
“We’re doomed,” the helmsman said. “Either we’ll be eaten alive by that monster, or we'll fall off the edge of the earth…”
Suddenly, the sea started to shudder. It felt like a massive earthquake was taking place underneath us. Huge waves almost made the ship topple over. I held on to the foremast for safety as I saw several ships-men go overboard. One was seized by the giant snake that had reached us with unbelievable speed.
What happened next was surreal. The snake disappeared in front of my eyes. The shipmate that had been in its mouth fell out of the tin air into the sea that had instantly calmed down. Everyone on board and in the water was flabbergasted by the sudden quietness of the world and the ocean around us.
I was the first one to realize what was going on.
I took my monocular to make sure. I looked at the place where the ledge had marked the end of the world. It was gone! It was finally gone! This could only mean one thing: science had prevailed!
“We’re saved,” I shouted in joy. “We won’t encounter any mythological monsters anymore, nor will we fall off the edge of the earth. That’s all gone for good.”
“What do you mean?” the captain asked. “What has just happened?”
“Science!” I answered. “That’s what has happened: the Middle Ages are finally over! The earth changed from a flat disk into a globe. This is the beginning of a new era. We can sail straight to India from here.”
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