FIRST Steersman Pucker drove the buoyant seas like one gigantic slippery-dip. So reckless was he that the scruffy crew of Her Lady Magnifico Splendouralous, happened upon his talents one day, whilst he, on the pier, chewed the hind legs of a Caesar crab. The crab was still alive at the time.
He had traveled far in search of the land of the Bon-Bon tree, but had failed to reach destiny, as his previous charge had unwittingly been swallowed by storm and sea. The crew's captain had retired into a madness which only the ocean-bound did at times, become inflicted. It came, thought they, when drinking seawater, and this rumor was upheld by many.
Steersman Pucker was qualified, for he held papers in which marvelous testimonies did tell of exotic freights and passages; which none other had heard of. They presumed that he must have already traveled far, for the stories so told were bewildering and fascinating, and bore no known relationship to local waters.
The cargo was hauled and fixed on deck, bound thrice over and attached as thought sufficient - one mammoth statue engraved and worked upon; a most cumbersome figure wrapped and concealed; destined for the garden of a holy man who had set the commission. A few other trifles and truffles, beverages and salt-meats, kegs of sour, kegs of sweet, and the usual animal passengers: a variety, from monkey to rat.
The waters were alarmingly calm, and the crew - with now, new captain (whom one might imagine as Gregory Peck) - were motivated to resume their voyage. For to the seaman life itself is a continual voyage, with every seaport considered an interruption to their watery land. But also too, every new consignment promised its reward; and eagerly they chortled off with grand expectation of special payments for this one.
On the seventh night, still flouncing on an ever quiet sea, Captain Pucker divorced himself from the main company and sought seclusion down by the ornament, which groaned with the ship's movement, tensing and straining at the bondages wrapped and bound. There was much superstition and a tingling apprehension regards this form lying heavy on the deck. The men had begun to speak jovial remarks when passing, but feigned to touch it; and did joke of what lay so concealed and so wrapped. Until three days later; weird imaginings had seized every man on board, and they stopped their remarks for many had begun to hear replies. Of course, not one did intimate this to another, but the frenzy was plain.
Pucker was amused and made point of resting himself on the head of this form. He was assured of gathering his thoughts uninterrupted, and was not caring or curious about this reliquary of import.
On this night, of the seventh, a snake did happen out from the garments, which though constrained well, did have many a fold in which the serpent might have made home back on land. The Captain notified the shiphands, calling for instant removal; and the glistening whip snake was duly flung over. The men, now caught with ever more suspicion, suggested that the snake was an omen of this illegal cargo.
Three nights later Captain Pucker was disturbed from his nightly contemplations, yet again in similar fashion. Another snake did slither out, and became erect, looking eye to eye, beside the Captain. Somewhat startled and complaining, the Captain did beckon his mates and rebuked them for not attending to the matter when first asked. For he did presume that this was the first snake, and considered not that there were two.
"It's enchanted, that's what it is!" they exclaimed with alarm; and all the while the snake, poised on statue, stared motionless. Pucker threw a net, and so covering the reptile, took a great iron chain, and smashed it over and over, with dramatic movements and curses, well satisfied with his trembling audience. Overzealous he became, and when casting the net over, found to his upset, white crumbles at his feet- one quite large. Shrewdly he shuffled the marble fragments under the tarp, and began to make bold of his achievements of the night. The men returned to sleep, and the Captain was again alone, alone with the now defiled and desecrated artwork.
"Bloody nuisance cargo!" was all that sprang to mind.
The wind had become icy colder, his stomach churned, he had never been partial to snakes, or regret. He comforted himself that perhaps with chisel and brazing-stones, he might make aright the craftsmanship gone wrong. And he so retired for the night, looking forward to the next, when he planned to unrobe the cold marble figure and confront the job ahead.
It was a moonless night as the sky was cloud-filled, and Captain Pucker required a little lamp for assistance with his restoration. The men were subdued and kept to themselves. The opportunity had come for him to strip bare this secret figure discreetly. With ropes untied, and further cords cut, Pucker pulled away one sheath of calico to find another underneath. Seven in all enrobed the marble figure, six he removed away from the head, until he came to the seventh, when he despondently leapt back, dismayed with disgust. For upon stripping back the final cloth, a defiling sticky paste caught his hand; viewed in the light of the flickering lamp . . . it resembled blood!
The Captain was rarely at a loss for immediate action when required, and prided himself so in daring and in confidence. It flashed through his fevered mind that he too might be drinking seawater, come morning. Unnerved and reluctant, he reviewed his good intentions, and with loathsome hand, rewrapped and rebound the solemn figure, deciding it better remain concealed; for he could not bring himself to view the face.
Never before had he encountered a magic unexplained. Many a story is told and received, and of course, he had known practically all the stories passed on. He was brought up on them. He had met with strangers who were curious, lecherous, exotically garbed and heavenly inspired; and disregarded all such individuals as one of the same.
Had the figure been a man so enshrouded, who had met with a common death, he should not fain glance into the face. But he was bewildered with the prospect of confronting that which he did not know- so foreign to experience and expectation.
Captain Pucker could not appease his tiredness with fresh, sweet sleep that night. He lay in blankets, all in an itch. His legs took to a trembling as he wrestled with the demons of imaginings. He tried many a consoling thought, with the promise of morning ahead.
A storm had been brewing however, with veritable force. The night was challenged by cracks and crazes of light, in thunderous episodes. The boat, truly tiny in respect now to the mountainous tumultuous waves, was seized and taunted perilously. After weeks of complaining that the waters were almost too quiet, it often happens that one is given such grace of certain pleas in overwhelming abundance.
"How so?" thought Captain Pucker, as it was not the season for storms.
However, he was glad for distraction and leapt from his bed to attend. It was a sad peculiarity that Pucker was remiss ever slightly, that when he had retied the ropes on his cargo he had hurriedly done so, too loosely to hold. The weight of the figure was shifted this way and that; and the bonds became weaker until finally they snapped.
The men were busy bailing and restraining ropes and rudders; their concentration spent on keeping certain balance. The Captain sung his favourite ballad, which was especial to inhospitable weather. The crew from this, worked well, with one mind, managing the elements, each with his own duty duly performed.
Finally the winds abated, the swirls ceased and a rosy glow streamed over the horizon. The ship creaked slightly as it gently glided into the port. The men were looking forward to their due nourishment and were glad that they might peruse the new town. Captain Pucker had given notice that he should not be making the voyage back, but rather chose to investigate the prospects of a merchandising franchise and apply his talents to market trade.
But before disembarking each man did have to wait. For their main commission had to be claimed and paid accordingly for, as the charge was their much-needed salary. The recompense was to last them three months or more.
But no one came. A full seven days passed, with word sent and waited for. But still no one came for the marble model.
Restless and weary of their charge, the men one by one, would make short daily departures, returning at night. What was unknown to the crew was that the rightful owner of this peculiar cargo had deceased shortly after making the arrangements for the statue to be transited. Having paid one quarter of the fee outstanding, it was small comfort to the men to be left the legacy of the unclaimed reliquary.
The Captain had desisted their attempts to view this marvel, as he feared the repercussions of their finding its demise. But after days had turned to weeks and weeks past the length of the month, the crew had decided it time to cut losses and depart. Having seen all there was to see locally, they became as irritable tourists, homesick.
The funds from the remainder of the cargo were sold, gained and now spent, the decks refilled with menagerie and curio, cloth and spice and luxurious intricacies so called for. But still remaining with position taken on deck was the mighty marble statue awaiting removal.
Carved from a frozen Tear of God, the name of this art-piece had spread throughout the local (and distant) communities of the holy. They had awaited its presence, but had not known the details of which ship to port- as many did come and go. The traffic was by the hundreds.The search for the commission was extensive. So it took a small company of monks many months before reaching the correct vessel, in good time. They had ventured into that region a matter of days before its arrival, and departed to other parts before returning with perseverance and hope of finding this acquisition.
Pucker, who was still resident upon the ship, eyed the hooded, plain-garbed troop who gathered at the walkway entrance. They had been murmuring to one of the crew, deliberating with restrained excitement of their finding, implying that they had come to collect.
This did satisfy the men to make suitable arrangements, as only that day they had assumed total readiness for departure. There was no argument as to payment. The monks had brought much gold, and did not hesitate when asked to pay twice over the initial price agreed upon.
With hoist and lever, a push and a pull, the clumsy strained efforts of twenty men did heave the marble piece from the side of the ship onto rodded ladders of iron bands, and suitable attachments to hoist such a bulk.
The men, much satisfied, bid goodbyes to Captain Pucker. Their transit was coast-bound, and they left, content to manage without him.
The Captain inquired as to the monk's destination. Perhaps he might follow them, and view the piece naked - as he had spent many months a'wondering and could not bring himself to depart this mystical work. The monks consented to his company and in goodwill Captain Pucker brought many provisions for their travel. His guessing had got the better of him, and he provoked haste with hurried promptings. But one may never hurry a monk, and his efforts were unrewarded.
The passage through to the holy community was lengthy, tedious, and mostly (it seemed) uphill. They would venture forth in two or three hour treks, stopping at intervals for prayer and privileged feasts. At night they would camp, and he did slumber amongst the chants that drove into the darkness to greet the morning. His ways of worldly assertion and mean outlook were educated by the presence of these twelve strangers- not a sigh or a grumble, in the great treasured haul.
Through ranges and down uncut pathways, from town to town and into ever more countryside, they travelled on for the best part of a year; until one fateful day when a mighty illness struck each and every one. Greatly fatigued and depleted of life, the entire company took camp, lay down and had not the strength to rise.
Pucker was delirious and quite helpless, as he watched the monks so quickly weaken. One by one their last prayers, on last breath, were murmured. One by one, they did abandon him, passing on to Heaven.
Had he the strength to laugh at his folly, with this affection for the unseen statue? Might he beseech the Father, to grant him more essence of life? Where could he go to if his legs could but more carry him? Was this figure so wrapped, accursed to him and his for his failings?
He knew not what to do with the twelve bodies that listlessly slumped before him. With respectful prayers, he clasped each hand in farewell and performed rites he felt most suitable. For in the time that he had spent journeying so, he had come to love these twelve.
He then went to the marble form and knelt beside. Throwing himself over the figure, he wept for the injury he had caused it, so long ago. For now he knew that this piece was surely special, if it had been treasured by these monks in a way that offers life itself for beauty.
Dare he behold the form for what it truly was? So many configurements he had speculated and presumed. With knife attending he drew each layer of shroud back from the form, until he came to the seventh and last.
Just then, as with a vision more vivid than life, there came and stood an Angel who beckoned him to come.
"But I must first take away this veil, and then I shall follow you wherever you will."
But the Angel intimated that his time had all been spent and that he must heed now, not later, not even one minute later. Without anxiety, without despair, Pucker did go, as he was asked to.
For the Angel's presence was well known to him, and he did recognize what he had come to love. For he needed not a statue to behold her Holy Face. And this burden of his life was surely redeemed in happy death.