For months I led Victor Frankenstein on a mad chase, from Switzerland to Italy to Russia to the Arctic Ocean. Then a storm separated us and, in the distance, I watched a passing ship rescue my creator and leave me for dead. I didn’t mind the “left for dead” part, but I refused to allow outsiders to settle our conflict.
As I sailed to the ship’s stern, the night was black as the bottom of the sea, and with the buffeting wind, only marginally drier. With rope I bound an oar and tossed it multiple times over the ship’s rail. When it held, I secured the other end to my single-sailed craft and scaled the hull, unseen. Creeping into the cabin area, I felt my way through the darkness, using the salt-encrusted wall as a guide. The walls creaked like a soul on a rack, complemented by an array of snores, some harsh like a saw, others like a gentle puff off a cigar. I felt lost, until a familiar voice said, “Damned monster, I will chase thee to the gates of hell.” Had I not been drenched, my ears would have been burning.
I turned into the room where my nemesis lay twisting on a hammock.
“Victor, the time has come,” I said, but as I touched his boiling forehead, I knew the time had passed. The handsome, virile scientist had turned into a scarecrow. After all our travails, we now met in this most unnatural place as equal monsters. In his sunken eyes I saw recognition of me and the importance of the moment. His scarred lips fluttered to form a final message. Out of respect and curiosity, I waited.
“I hate you,” he whispered, and died. My anger had lost its object, and I emitted let a soul-wrenching groan. Moments later, a hulking man carrying a lantern appeared in the doorway. “You!” he said.
I’d been called much worse, but he didn’t stop there, adding “misbegotten spawn of hell,” “demon,” and “damned monstrosity.” He said his name was Captain Walton and that Victor had told him everything. In response, I ranted that my creator had experienced one-tenth of my pain. His end was fitting, as would be mine: I intended to jump back onto my craft and drift from all that was natural. Walton had other ideas. He yelled for his men. The sleepers awoke, and sets of feet banged onto the floor, echoing like cannon shot. I struck the captain in the face, and he crumbled into a heap, then I tore back onto the deck. Aided by the darkness and the sleep-befuddled heads of my pursuers, I grabbed my oar and sprang over the side. Sputtering, I pulled myself on top of my boat and rowed like a galley slave. Apparently, my being off the ship satisfied my pursuers, and they did not chase me further.
For days I sailed north. Without landmarks, I saw no progress. My voyage would end with my boat lodged in ice or me drowned. Though I told Walton that Victor’s best revenge would be to allow me to live and suffer for my sins, the Arctic Ocean wasn’t the greatest place for atonement. Just remaining afloat required near-constant attention, allowing but snatches of sleep. The harsh cold and drenching waves tormented my body. I had neither time nor energy to dwell on past transgressions.
One day clouds and mist, thick as cataracts, filled the air. The ocean roared in my ears, drowning my thoughts. Waves separated me from the air I struggled to breathe. I grasped for purchase of anything that might keep me alive. You might ask why I didn’t surrender then, but I believed my one chance at purification lay in defiance, until I could defy no more. I bound myself with rope to my boat, but the knots kept loosening, and I was tossed into the bracing sea. Each time my resolve and everything else stiffened as I lugged myself back atop my battered craft.
Time has no meaning in a tempest, and as my muscles failed, I felt the shelter of detachment. I could no longer hear the wind or feel the slaps of the swells. I willed the swirling mist into mental pictures I could grasp, such as living in the abandoned house where I discovered my love of books, or when the old blind man befriended me. These images never lasted long, however, and eventually all coalesced into an approaching ship. At first I thought Captain Walton had taken pity on me, but this ship looked older, with torn sails and bent masts.
Who knows why, but now with a choice, I wanted to live. I furiously paddled toward the ship, making progress, as if the sea had opened a path. The ship ranged eighty meters long, with three masts, and it glowed as if lit by a hundred candlesticks. From the deck a silent man, a long salt and pepper beard protruding from under his cap, lowered a rope. I hadn’t the strength to climb, so I tied the rope around my waist while he and another man hoisted me on board. I fell flat on the deck like a fish gasping for breath. I pulled myself upright, and then, despite my former ambivalence about living, showered my benefactors with thanks. In a fierce storm, they’d gone out of their way to help a stranger, and I would find a way to repay them. When neither man said a word, I gazed closely at them.
Their clothes hung tattered on their bodies, stiffened with salt. The matted hair on their heads and lined faces stuck out like tentacles. The mist gave their bodies a wispy, insubstantial look. Like the ship, a dull glow emitted from their bodies, as if the mist reflected a source of light, or perhaps my ordeal had scrambled my senses.
What manner of people rescues a drowning man only to ignore him? I reached for the sinewy arm of a passing crewman, but grabbed only air. I sat back dumbfounded, as if tricked by a cape-waving matador.
As the silent sailors walked away, I stumbled to my feet and followed one at a discreet distance. I passed crewmen doing typical tasks. Several swabbed the deck. Another sat cross-legged, repairing a net. Yet another stood stoically at the wheel. None paid me any attention. I knew something of the loneliness of the high seas and how when ships intersected, both crews took the opportunity to converse. Even if the men on this ship were taciturn by nature, my seven-foot tall body and flat head should have elicited a raised eyebrow. But my presence made no more impact on them than a coiled rope. I was not of their world.
My aloof guide led me below deck, where the ever-present soft glow painted the darkness. He stopped in front of a door, opening it to reveal a small room. I stuck my head inside and saw a full-bearded man seated at an otherwise deserted table. In front of him lay a yellowed piece of paper with rows of numbers etched upon it, perhaps navigational measurements. I was not surprised when he failed to acknowledge me. I waited a moment then sat opposite him in one of two empty chairs.
“My name is…” I didn’t have a name, so I took the only one that made any sense. “Frankenstein.”
For the first time, he looked at me with a piercing gaze. In his eyes I detected no twinkle or discernment. He reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a handful of folded letters, and placed them in front of me. I remembered the Flying Dutchman legend, a ghostly crew doomed to sail the world. Whenever it encountered a ship, it handed to the living crew letters to deliver, usually to people long dead. To receive such a letter was generally a portent of doom.
“I don’t doubt my damnation,” I said. “But what is the point of this ritual? I can’t find these people.” When the captain didn’t answer, I picked up one of the letters, glanced back at him, then unfolded it. The writing was difficult to discern, as one might expect on a storm-tossed ship. At the end was a name: Stefan Blom. I glanced at other letters, from Martaan Willemssen, Bert Moorman. One was signed “Captain Hendrick Vanderdecken.” I pointed and asked, “Is this you?”
“Read,” he whispered.
It was addressed to his wife. The text began with rhetorical inquiries on her health and of their three children. He hoped the letter would reach her and that any correspondence she could write would reach him. From there, the narrative lurched into an account laden with misery, violence, and death, all counter to the current conditions where the crew toiled in perfunctory fashion. Apparently, the letter had been written some time ago as its author detailed the difficulties of passing through the Cape of Good Hope, on the other side of the world. A once dependable crew had turned mutinous over months of deprivation, and the captain had been forced to counter with draconian measures, executing two oft-whipped ringleaders. That and the scarcity of food and drinking water sapped the crew’s rebelliousness. One by one they died. The survivors resorted to cannibalism. I found the subject matter repellent and thought it an odd letter to send to one’s wife. I skipped to the end, and by the captain’s name, I saw the date: October 27, 1682, nearly a hundred and forty years ago.
“I cannot deliver these, but I am grateful for you rescuing me. Is there any other way I can repay you?” I asked.
He gathered the letters and stuffed them into his jacket pocket.
“There is one here who does not belong. Only you can get him off,” he said.
“You’re talking about me? Once in sight of land, I will leave.”
Vanderdecken turned away, our conversation over.
I made no friends in the following days. Everyone had a job and went through their paces. I tried to join in, but nothing I did made any impression. I ran a mop over the deck, but the dirt remained undisturbed. Torn sails fell apart moments after I sewed them. Someone always stood at the wheel and refused to allow me to take it. When I ascended to the crow’s nest, I saw only clouds.
Captain Vanderdecken made no further attempts at communication. I wasn’t anxious to fight the sea in my small craft again, but I knew I had to leave the ship soon for it contained no food or drink, and I had exhausted my own supply. I should have been ravenous, yet the ship had a narcotic effect, numbing my hunger. At night I chose an empty bunk and slept undisturbed. None of the crew ever slept.
On the fourth morning I climbed on deck and saw two spirits arguing with each other, though I couldn’t hear their words, and perhaps none were spoken. One of the spirits had a pained look on his ravaged face but stood as if frozen. He held out a mop to the other spirit, whose wild brown hair shook in the wind like ribbons. The second spirit wanted nothing to do with the mop. It was the first sign of discord I’d seen on the ship. Curious, I approached, and the first spirit walked away. The second spirit looked at me in the face.
“Victor!” I said in disbelief.
He pulled at his stringy, unyielding hair. His face twisted before he spoke, as if he was straining to raise a monstrous fish that might devour him. “Even in death, I cannot avoid you. How did you survive the sea?”
“I don’t know. I left Captain Walton’s ship determined to destroy myself. But you were the source of my anger. With you gone, it seemed wrong to allow that anger to dictate what life remained to me.”
“So you took control. How arrogant.”
“Of myself. Arrogant is looking God in the face and thinking that you can do better.”
He folded his arms, but they just went through each other. “I didn’t look God in the face. I turned away, looked inside, and became intoxicated by dreams and desires. I rode that chariot, and like Phaethon, crashed and burned. Out of the ashes came you.”
“I didn’t ask to be born.”
“No one does.”
For the first time, I felt pity for him. Even a creator of life could be flawed—perhaps all creators. “So your unrest has brought you here.”
He shrugged. “It seems my restlessness is too great to be housed in heaven or hell. Or perhaps this is this hell, when I stand face to face with the monster I created but cannot destroy.”
“You are more tormented than the other spirits here.”
“They have had more time to accept nothingness.”
“Shouldn’t you do the same? What other choice have you?” I asked.
“I accept that I created a life that should not have been, and in doing so, stole lives meant for better things, including mine. What I don’t accept is peace. If that can to granted to such as I, then all is a joke.”
I thought about that, and of my own grappling. “Is it not the duty of all intelligent, creative men to venture into the unknown and attempt what lies beyond their power? Aren’t we all doomed to fail? You didn’t know this would happen.”
“A murderer doesn’t know he will become one.”
His self-hatred had made him pathetic, and I recognized myself in him. My hands had killed. I had returned hate for hate, and it had brought me to the deck of a ghost ship.
“I cannot undo my sins, but I can learn from them. What if I return to the mainland, get to know people, and help them? That would lessen your crime.”
His head rolled slightly. “Would you do that for me or yourself?”
“Both. Mostly for me.”
“Then you’d better get off this ship.”
He turned and vanished below deck. It seemed all my conversations on The Flying Dutchman ended the same way.
The next morning a violent lurch woke me in my hammock. I staggered onto the deck and saw land in the distance. It was gray and desolate, offering a dare that most forms of life had spurned. Unlike my present circumstances, however, it had substance. Captain Vanderdecken appeared next to me and stuffed his letters into my shirt. Some spirits never give up. We lowered my weather-beaten boat into the sea and I paddled. The farther I got from the ship, the harder I rowed, until my craft scraped onto the shore and I fell onto the sand. Remembering my benefactors, I turned around and watched the ship fade into mist. I later learned I had reached a deserted island in the Spitsbergen archipelago. Though I found no human beings, I did locate the ruins of a fort. From that I patched up my boat as best I could. With my knife I killed an ailing reindeer. Other wildlife, such as an occasional polar bear, arctic foxes, ptarmigans, and an auk passed me with impunity.
I was reticent to again trade solid ground for the dangers of the ocean but changed my mind on the fifth day when what turned out to be a Russian whaler came into view. It was about two miles away. I paddled my boat toward it as if my life depended on it.
When the crew hauled me in, they weren’t sure whether to offer me shelter, throw me back in, or harpoon me. The only Russian word I knew was “nyet,” which wouldn’t open many doors. By now my extended time at sea had made my frightful appearance appropriate.
Plenty of use was found for my brute strength, such as swabbing the deck and pulling in whale carcasses, but my errant tosses soon excluded me from harpoon activity. My lack of Russian kept me separated from the crew, but the captain, a burly, red-faced man named Konstantin Dryomov, knew quite a bit of German. As I was the only other educated person on board, he took an interest in me. He reminded me of the blind man I had befriended. Once we got to know each other, it became our habit to discuss the great philosophical questions, particularly how they pertained to whaling.
“Whales, they have big objection to being killed. They have big everything,” he said to me one evening on the deck, the salty air absorbing his pipe smoke.
“How did you get into the whaling business?” I asked.
“One day I wake up and was whaler.”
“Really? You just decided that’s what you wanted to do?”
“No.” He frowned. “I wake up from drinking more vodka than possible and find I be shanghaied onto whaling ship. I tell captain I want off. He say, ‘We drop you at next stop.’ It take two years.”
“If you didn’t like whaling, why didn’t you leave the profession?”
“Was my plan. But we arrive Vladivostok, my pockets full of money and my head with dreams. My mates insist we celebrate at inn, but I say this first day of rest of life. I go alone. I walk Vladivostok’s streets past its gray, broke houses, and think, Goodbye, whales. After hours of steps I chose my inn. White Cliffs in your language. I draw crowd with my whaling stories, only little bit lies. Listeners keep my tankard full. Next I know, it late morning and I half-dressed on bed, head exploding, pockets empty. Only thing I can afford is kick flying me into street. Sailing all I know. In days, I sign on another whaler.” He took another puff. “If not for whales, my life be very different. So, I declare war on them. Not free until every one harpooned.”
“Shouldn’t you blame the whalers? It’s not the whales’ fault there is a whaling trade.”
“Life not fair, for people or whales.”
Determined to interact more with people, I did my work and tolerated the jokes about my flat head. My education and proximity to the captain made me unpopular with the crew, however. A turning point presented itself when Captain Dryomov discovered a barrel of wine was missing. As watered down wine was the principle drink of the sailors, and was used to disinfect drinking water, this was not an insignificant theft. The cook was accused, but he vowed his innocence. As the cook had treated me fairly, if not warmly, I decided to look into it.
I kept an eye on the sailors, trying to spot one that was drunk at an inexplicable time, but most of these men were heavy drinkers who could hold copious amounts of alcohol without showing it. There weren’t that many places to hide something as large as a barrel. The most cluttered place was the hold where the whale oil was kept in 35-gallon barrels, of which we had nearly a hundred filled ones at the time. As these were larger than the keg of wine, the oil barrels would make a good hiding place. The thing was, the filled barrels were nailed shut and wouldn’t be easy to reopen. As I was leaving the hold, I ran into the carpenter, a sallow, taciturn sailor named Krupin. He acted as if he’d forgotten something, and turned around. Later, I asked the captain why Krupin would be in the hold. Dryomov said he was in there often, as he built the oil barrels. I said, if the keg is hidden in one of the barrels, a likely culprit would be the one that made them. We weren’t about to open a hundred nailed barrels, however. We just needed to keep an eye on Krupin.
Krupin probably suspected something and kept away from the hold for two days. On the third, he got careless, and I followed him in. He approached one of the barrels, on which he’d hidden a hinge that opened the top. As he filled his mug, I confronted him. He considered my superior size, then backed down, opting for five lashes rather than my fists. Dryomov thanked me and suggested I be a detective for a living. I laughed. Other than the captain, whose job it was to deal with hardened men, who would trust a monster like me to find things they’d lost? On further reflection, however, I thought, what was a monster but someone who couldn’t channel his negative qualities? Could I turn being a monster into a strength? I was educated, strong, and had insight into the extremes of human nature. I could bill myself: Frankenstein, No Case Too Monstrous.
One night while we were standing on deck, looking over a flat sea, I confided to the captain my thoughts about a second chance.
“Whatever I do, it needs to be something I can justify. People either make the world better or worse. So far, I’ve done only the second one.”
Dryomov took a puff on his ever-present pipe. “Find your strengths and make up for your sins. If not, you wake up on a whaler.”
Or on Captain Walton’s ship, The Flying Dutchman, or a tiny craft on a dangerous sea.
A month later, Captain Dryomov dropped me off in Christiania. I had a little money and a lot of desire to stay on land. He had more money, and I asked him to come with me and start a new life.
He laughed and patted my broad shoulder.
“If I come, I not be me.”
Alone again, in a simple inn, by the light of a fire, I took another look at the letters given to me by Captain Vanderdecken. The sending addresses were mostly but not all in Holland. One was France, another England, and a third, Algeria. A final piece of paper appeared newer than the rest. To my astonishment, I saw the name “Monster” on it, with a Geneva address. Under it were the words: “Redeem me, and yourself.” It was signed “Victor Frankenstein.”
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Zetetic, Perihelion Science Fiction, and other semi-pro markets. His books “Walden Planet and Other Stories” and “The Reopened Cask and Other Stories” are available on Amazon.