Steal Head: Prologue, Part 1 – Blessed Fortitude.

“Skippa! Skippa!” Captain Jehizkiah Epaenetus Williams of the steam trawler Blessed Fortitude ran the type of ship upon which hard work, loyalty and a devotion to the scriptures counted for much, but upon which crew members running around exciting each other would not be tolerated. He span round, his eyes boring out from beneath his hat and beard like searchlights seeking out sin and wickedness until they located the source of the shouting; young Ho, one of the Chinese converts he’d signed up (some of the locals didn’t like it but the devil could take them as far as Williams cared; these Orientals were more God fearing than any of the drunken swine and that counted for far more than birthplace in his book) was dashing across the deck in a foolish hurry. “HO! Cease immediately!” Williams bellowed in a voice as deep as the ocean beneath them.

The boy slipped and skidded to a halt, visibly withering as the captain glowered down at him, “This is a place of communion, boy. A place where we cleanse our souls with the toils of our honest labour. This is not one of Shanghai’s damnable public houses or smoking dens where the rule of chaos holds sway!” He saw the look of fear in the child’s eyes and Williams felt his anger subside and his tone soften “Now boy, what gives you cause for such unseemly excitement?”

“Skippa, big fight below. Polish Bob! He hit Chi Yun!”

**{}**

The man known as Polish Bob and the convert Chi Yun shuffled uncomfortably in the captain’s cabin. The first mate, a man made by God in the image of a granite rockface, stood close by to dissuade either of the bruised and bloodied men from any more acts of violence. Williams often fancied his loyal and trusted first mate capable of dissuading the sun and moon from rising or setting should he so wish. He glared at the two sorry excuses for Christians in front of him, taking a long, hard look at each man before turning his attention to the cause of the vehement disagreement between them, the carved whale’s tooth he held between his fingers. Neither unusually large nor small for such an item (although curiously with holes made through the surface as if to be used for playing music), it was however strangely carved, with a curious mixture of lines and circles that formed images of creatures and men alike with scenes of waves and eyes and teeth curling around what looked like a vicious whale. As if to underline the vileness of the whole, the base was ringed by a grotesque circle of severed heads. “And this… charming piece of scrimshaw is the reason for your altercation?” Polish Bob refused to look up, instead glaring mutely over at the Chinese man. Williams followed the man’s gaze “Well, if his tongue seems to have forgotten its purpose in life, maybe yours can furnish me with an explanation. What say ye Chi? Come now, speak up and shame the Devil.”

Chi shifted nervously, his right eye already swelling shut from thef fight, and looked over at the captain, “Skippa sir, I foun’ it sihr, ina fish sihr. Polish Bob he see me. He want it. I say no and he hit me and take it skippa.”

“Filthy chi…!” shouted the other man, making a leap to reach the Chinese fisherman. The first mate’s huge arm curled around Bob’s chest and lifted him clear into the air, knocking the wind out of his lungs.

Williams rose to his feet, banging a fist on his table in fury, “How dare you! How dare you bring your ungodly ways into my cabin! You will becalm yourself or spend the rest of the trip in the hold, do I make myself clear?” He waited until Bob nodded tightly before speaking again, and when he did he spoke slowly and quietly from his seat. The captain knew Polish Bob of old, but a fair fisherman at best he was a feckless ungodly swine people would have no trouble believing capable of thieving from his own mother let alone a new crew member. Chi Yun, on the other-hand, was a hard-working family man who always attended mass and had some considerable skill at the gutting table. Williams’ choice was easy and he felt no regret in making it. “I shall hold this until we get back to port lest it cause yet more aggravation and grievance amongst my crew. Once there you may have it back Chi Yun…”

“What?” Bob was furious, “You believe this heathen savage?” he spat, “that’s not for a yella ‘un, it’s meant for a white fella!”

Williams stared hard at the man until he receded spluttering into silence “Thank you for making my decision an easy one. First mate, take this sorry excuse for a man down below and keep him there.” Polish Bob’s face was a picture of shock and anger as the man mountain took him by the shoulder and led him out of the door. “And one last thing,” the captain added to the departing form, “once back in Steelhead your services amongst my crew will no longer be required. You can go back to whatever den of iniquity will have you and stay there to rot for all I care. As for you Chi Yun, you may return to work but mark my words when I say that if I have one more reason to speak to you regarding unrest amongst my crew then you too will be looking for a new job, do you understand?”

The Chinese man looked relieved and nodded “Yes Skippa, promise Skippa,” before turning and almost running out of cabin. Williams stared at the door for a while and mulled over these troubling events. The tooth in his hand was cold and oddly unpleasant to the touch and the more he looked at it the less he liked it; the heads seemed to squirm under his gaze and he could swear the eyes of the whale-like carving (with another head in its maw, he noticed with some unease) were looking at him. Frankly, Chi Yun was welcome to the damned ugly and undoubtably heathen thing. He tossed it in his desk draw and locked it with a strange feeling of relief. They were only two days into the the Blessed Fortitude’s two week trip and such events did not bode well. He rose, grabbed his hat and strode out on deck.

The sea was calm, the sky grey but settled; a perfect day for fishing he mused as he thought of the nets billowing out below the waves behind them. He stood and listened to the industry of the men around him, feeling the swell and rise of the ship beneath him and the salt-laden winds whipping over him. He closed his eyes and began a silent prayer. Almost immediately his mind was filled with a terrible image, teeth gnashing away at him, slicing down into his flesh. With a start he opened his eyes, a cold sweat beading on his forehead. Before he had time to wonder at what tricks his mind had decided to play on him, a horn sounded away to port and he saw the Clockhaven Queen steaming towards them on her way to Babbage. He put his telescope to his eye and looked her over; she was a fine vessel and he wished her fair winds and calm seas as she went. With a sigh he turned back to his own ship and crew, there was work to be done and fish to be caught.

****{}****

Ten Days Later, Shanghai Harbour.

The catch was unloaded, the ship secured and the men dismissed, free to spend their wages in any way they saw fit. Polish Bob had watched the fevered activity from start to end through the darkened window of a nearby inn. He had been thrown off almost as soon as they had docked and he’d spent him meager share nursing his grudge with cheap gin until his anger burned inside him like a furnace. Finally, as night began to fall, he saw what he’d been waiting for and slipped into the shadowed streets. Through the winding alleys of Shanghai’s slums he crept until he came behind the thin, wiry Chinese man. The shiv in his hand sliced through cloth and skin and he pulled the dying Chi Yun into the shadows. What he was looking for was easy to find and he grinned as he turned the tooth in his hands at last. “Told yer it were mine, ya bastard!” he hissed and kicked the gasping bundle at his feet before slipping back into the night…

To be continued…

All my “Steal Head” posts can be read here and all my “Snatched From Steelhead” posts can be read on my blog here.

Links to other blogs and stories:
1) Steal Head’s first appearance was recorded by Nurse Lucy Tornado here.

*****{*}*****

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11 comments

  1. Diving into this tale now. I left the grid about the time this tale was in full swing. I look forward to its unfolding.

    I find most interesting the insertion of religion into this tale. Most of the steamlands tends to avoid the subject of Christianity, at least direcly, while other faith systems, notably Celtic, Shinto, Neo-pagan, Lovecraftian or even the House of the Builder find wide acceptance, or at least more press. I suppose I simply may have missed this in not being much familiar with Steelhead’s milieu. I have seen mention of the “Nuns with Guns” but have yet to hear tell of a Priest in town. I assume he is there, but I do not recall hearing much mention of him. In contrast, the clerics of the House of the Builder (something of an anolog to a rather byzantine brand of Catholicism as I understand it) in New Babbage have a somewhat more visible presence.

    Anyway, just an observation. As I said, I greatly look forward to reading through this tale. I remember thinking at the time that what with all the cross postings in several blogs it would have been hard to keep track of events as they were happening. Coming back to it after the fact may not be any easier, but will undoubtedly be entertaining.

    1. As for religion in the tale (and, indeed, Steelhead) please let me assure you that there is precious little.

      As far as I know there is no church of any sort in Steelhead and the Nuns with Guns were created (as far as I know) out of an in-joke and became part of the fabric of the town. They tend to get rolled out as a sort of police force. I’ve used them in the past but from the end of my current tale (Gang Wars) I’ll not be using them again – I find it’s not worth the hassle.

      As for the Captain, well I made him a God Fearing Man for several reasons, none of them terribly well thought out I’m afraid. I wanted to provide a powerful figure to hang the prologue on and I’ve always been fond of the preacher in Moby Dick – I figured as this was a fishing town and there were Chinese workers that a Christian captain would be interesting to write and provide a little more depth to the back-drop.

      Although I’m an atheist, I grew up in the NW of England I was exposed to both RC & CofE practices as a kid. Still I’m near enough to Wales & Scotland to know a little about more strident preachers than kindly old Father Fobes from my childhood and I’ve harboured a secret love of the Fire & Damnation character often portrayed in films and literature. As such it was actually great fun to write for the good old captain – so much so I cancelled my plans to have him killed and now plan to have him as an occasional player in my tales – hut don’t expect any heavy messages about god – my views are closer to Beck’s than Captain Jehizkiah Epaenetus Williams 😀

      1. I find the occasional sprinkling of faith tropes to be a fine vehicle for character development. I only comented on it because, as you allude, it is rather rare.

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