“Come on, Vincent!” Hissed Nathaniel Coffin from the other side of the gate.
George was making his way over, not wanting to be lumped in with the two precarious boys.
“Vincent!” Hissed Nathaniel again, “Come on!”
Vincent Swain passed a solitary glance to Ernest who remained steadfast. As Vincent made his way over the gate, Nathaniel gave a smug look to Ernest having the majority in his wake, “You coming?” He egged.
Ernest said nothing.
George chimed in, “I thought you didn’t believe.”
“I don’t,” said Ernest, “but this is trespassing.”
The two boys whispered some callous insults while Vincent looked at Ernest with pleading eyes. Ernest sighed and soon after all four boys were in Pollard’s cemetery.
The grass was wet with the ocean mist that carried over from the harbor; it made the length of dirt over each grave moist… fresh. As they trekked along the rows of the deceased, Nathaniel made frequent attempts to spook the boys. He’d rustle a tree branch or emulate a moan or swear on his own grave that a shadow ducked from the fog. While each prank plunged George and Vincent into new depths of fear, Ernest remained intrepid. Instead, the graves held his attention; the hundreds of native Nantucket whalers who died left an impressionable mark on him. He read their inscriptions, seeing what ventures were their final undoing, but was even more enrapt with their ages.
As he drifted off in thought on the number of coffins vs. Coffins, he unabashedly bumped into Nathanial. Ernest expected a flagrant remark, but Nathaniel did not so much as acknowledge Ernest’s presence. Ernest looked at the other two boys who stood adjacent. Altogether they stared straight ahead in stiff silence. And, although Ernest much preferred this side to Nathanial, he felt obliged to look forward and indulge whatever their “leader’s” fancy was. What he saw set him right.
Before them was the much celebrated Owen Coffin, the boy aboard the Essex, who had drawn the smallest lot… That is, if you don’t believe the rumor–
There was a rustle behind them and all the boys jumped. They turned around and in the fog and something made itself known.
In the icy shadows, a hum from a hoarse throat, like a man whose tongue was too large for his mouth, bellowed. It sounded less like a tune and more like a deranged conversation with ethereal creatures.
The hum was followed by a rusty squeak of a lantern — they surmised due to the small bouncing light in the distance.
But they were locked in fear, watching in horror as the being moved with, what appeared to be, three legs.
The rate at which this man traveled was inconsistent with his feet. Three thick black boots. Only… As it neared… One was considerably less thick, more curved, more narrow, and less… Human.
So engaged were they, that the boys did not notice the humming had stopped. Vincent came to first, after the sound of his gulp echoed into the night. The boys all checked themselves, then stared back at the figure that had stopped moving. Two black feet on the road. A flint of light was cast from what appeared to be the third foot. Only, it wasn’t another limb, but a jagged meat hook.
The bouncing light went out.
Vincent let out a scream. The boys ran. They tried to stay within sight of each other, but the fog was thick and the cemetery unfamiliar.
Soon, they lost sight of each other, each thinking terrible morose thoughts to themselves, ‘Should the grave keeper catch one, I may be spared ’til morning.’
It was Ernest who ducked behind a tombstone. Not knowing where to turn, he only knew the man was behind him, so he hoped that this would afford him the opportunity of escape.
He felt drowsy, like the hours must have taken him long into the night. Perhaps the others had already gone home and were sleeping in their warm beds; perhaps they had been caught, but explained everything away, after all, they had not defamed any monuments, simply acted as children are wont to do. But if they could not find him– ‘No,’ he thought, ‘I must wait until morning lest–‘
A thick gloved hand gripped his shoulder. Ernest’s heart sank, his blood turned cold, his face white and unmoving. He could feel his captor’s body bend over his; its face level with his own. He could not bear to look.
“Would you…” The cracked voice started before a coughing fit ensued. He resumed, “like… A cup of tea?” The voice no longer rasped. It sounded eloquent — loquacious even.
Now Ernest turned in sheer bafflement to his captor and saw a shaved man with round features and deep-set eyes. He was smiling.
Whether this was reality or his mind had surrendered itself to insanity to better process his fear, Ernest couldn’t say, but he found himself trailing behind the rotund man, listening to the gentle scraping of a meat hook (now cane) on the ground. It wasn’t long before he was seated within the graves keeper’s — and in fact former — Captain Pollard’s kitchen, drinking some fine tea from India.
“Tastes alright, I trust,” Captain Pollard said, resting his cane against the table and sitting opposite his guest. Ernest nodded.
“Aye, good. Now tell me,” Pollard said, “what were you boys doing in the cemetery past curfew?”
Ernest gently put his tea down. The guilt of their shenanigans weighed heavy upon him, especially now that he was warm and enjoying exotic tea. He was grateful that the Captain took pity on him, and he was even more grateful that he needn’t sleep in a dewy cemetery all night — as surely his companions would be doing. With this, he felt obligated to tell the former captain the truth, “The boys had heard a rumor,” already the Captain seemed to rock back in his chair as though he’d heard the story before; this impelled Ernest to continue, making him feel lax in his keeper’s presence, “A rumor that Owen Coffin appears to boys late at night and once they see him, they’re compelled to follow until Coffin leads them to graves keeper Pollard’s belly.”
“Ha!” Pollard snorted, “As though a slight against my tragedy weren’t enough, my figure must be reproached.” Pollard shook his belly with both hands, “You’ll not find enough room for miscreants here!” Ernest could not help but laugh.
The rest of the night continued in good humor. The Captain recited old tales of boyhood that made the young lad recount similar stories of Nathaniel, George, and Vincent.
Amid the laughs however, there was glint of glib in the Captain’s voice that made Ernest question his caretaker. Pollard’s eyes were distracting as they didn’t appear born deep set, but grew darker over time. Ernest felt that the only way to dispel any sense of doubt and to dispel the rumors forever was to be upfront and honest.
“Sir,” piped the young ward, “if you don’t mind me asking, and perhaps to relay to my company when I see them again, what is the true story of Owen Coffin…”
At this, the Captain grew solemn and faced Ernest with such a dire stare that he didn’t know whether to run or lean in closer to hear.
“Are ye sure, you want to know?” Captain Pollard’s eyes didn’t blink. They were deep pits of despair and nought an ounce of light escaped or was reflected upon them. All Ernest could see in those deep, pitted eyes was his own visage. When he nodded, Pollard continued.
“I once was Captain aboard the Essex lad, that much be true, and we was shipwrecked by a vengeful whale — nigh 85 feet in length. And while you may have heard me mate’s account, I opined to head West as that was where the wind was going. But the mates see, they feared the inhabitants; they feared the cannibals. So they outnumbered me, see? And we headed East. We were lost for 93 days. And boy, we were dying — most of us believed ourselves dead and it was a cruel joke of providence to keep our hopes up. But alas, after our throats were dry and our lips blistered into jerky, when our skin hung like rags about our skeletons, my nephew asked what we’d all been thinking. He asked to draw lots.” He paused for a moment and shaking, took a sip of his tea, then continued. “So we stripped the papers and pulled our lots and wouldn’t you know it, my nephew — my boy! — drew the shortest lot. I pleaded with the lad, I did, I begged him to let me take his place but he refused.” A tear trickled down the Captain’s eye and he folded over the table in sobs.
Ernest rose, his stomach uneasy, and sat beside the Captain for comfort.
The Captain returned his gaze across the table as though Ernest still sat on the opposite end. He finished his story, “We did what we had to…” He shielded his eyes from Ernest, who was starting to regret he’d ever asked as his stomach twist and turned.
In an effort to regain composure, the Captain added, “Not a day goes by that I don’t visit that boy in my mind.”
Ernest, feeling that he had outstayed his welcome, patted the Captain on the back, but as he rose to dismiss himself, something peculiar happened, his legs didn’t catch him.
Ernest crumpled on the ground, dizzied and confused. He tried to stand, but there was no response from his body’s lower half. Ernest realized the ridiculousness of his plight, finding the humor in his languid limbs, until he listened to Captain Pollard more intently.
What had started as penitent sobs had grown into a voracious laughter. It was only now that Ernest started to feel the eclipsing fear he had when first caught in the graveyard. Captain Pollard rose from his seat, his eyes in a fiery way.
“And not a day goes by… That I don’t hunger for more.”
“B-b-but you said…” Ernest raced to find some defense for his being, “You said, there was no room in your belly for children!”
Captain Pollard laughed at the sanguine rebuttal, “Ah, ’tis true; ’tis true… but my boy,” And then Pollard brought his face in low, his teeth gritting before Ernest’s nose and in a salacious tone said, “You’re fit for a week’s worth.”
For the true story of the Essex, read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea.
For more short stories, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive