I came to this place,
But I know not how.
What is this edge of the world and whither does it lie?
Edge? I think not.
Are we carried over its rigid limit into the firmament beyond?
No! Instead it clutches at our very bowels and would drag us down,
Constrained by an elemental swirl,
Into liquid oblivion.
It has been forsaken, consigned to myth at best in the minds of men. Its harsh name no longer echoes through his songs and its singular form has been erased from even the most extravagant of his charts. But for all that, its indelible imprint upon that boundless ocean cannot be denied. An atoll, but not of coral, set amidst waves that pound and rage against it; waves that grow ever more furious at their inability to prevail against such an obdurate foe.The ring of ivory rock is immense and dwarfs the bird that is hovering there, above its desolate center. Only an oceanic condor could reach these remote latitudes, yet why would it choose to do so, with such scant reward awaiting it upon the lifeless rocks below? What has impelled the great bird to set forth upon such a flight? Why on this day, of all days?
It is buffeted by gusting winds and swirling updrafts, but nevertheless maintains a characteristic grace as it scans the distant walls, protruding like bleached bones through the roiling mist. It discerns two contrasting hues: white rock against back sea. Everywhere, white against black, but never a third hue to focus its muted predatory senses. And so, lulled by the unchanging vista, it continues to soar serenely on outspread wing, idly surveying this lonely outpost. It has nothing to contemplate save its reason for being there and its journey home for, as yet, it is unaware that something approaches.
It is a floating fragment of red that draws nearer. Its progress is slow, but measured. It bears down upon the jagged ring before it, seeming to single out the tallest peak with suicidal intent.
But such is not the case. It is apparent that the sea’s efforts have taken their toll, though barely; its relentless attrition has carved out a single archway in that otherwise impregnable bastion. One heaving swell now carries the red interloper through the crumbling portal and into the sheltered waters beyond.
Such a vivid intrusion cannot but fail to arouse the condor’s curiosity. The bird continues to hover though, unwilling to attract attention, merely observing with the infinite patience that is the hallmark of its breed.
All is soon still below. And the day wears on.
The movement is slight, but it is enough. A few casual beats from its expansive wings send the imperious bird swooping down and allow it to assimilate the unfolding scene. The howling wind abates once it is below the protective cocoon of jutting rock. There is only the rhythmic flapping of its own wings as it circles the intruder, now wrapped within the daunting shadows of those ashen walls. The waters here are black; calm but foreboding.
The bizarre aspect of its quarry causes the condor to observe from a respectful distance, not daring to override its instincts by effecting a landing on those uninviting masts or decks; for a sea-going vessel this most surely is, albeit well beyond the parameters that would normally define it as such.
Yet what specifically prompts the bird’s unease? Has this vessel been imbued with an independent life force of its own, coursing through its menacing frame? For the red hue is no superficial coating: from the sturdy timbers of the keel to the tips of the exquisite masts, the wood itself is red. It has indeed an inherent luminosity about it which pervades even the gloom of the water on which it rests. What could be the source of this life force? Does it emanate from the three mast towers which so dominate the deck?
There they sit, winged ogres, harpies perhaps, that have landed on the deck only to be shackled by enchantment, bodies upright on reptilian haunches. Gleaming leathery sails fortify the impression, not furled but stretched out on ribbed wings that are currently in a state of repose, folded back against the ornate tapering towers.
Nor is decoration reserved for the towers alone, for carvings abound, all the way from the gargantuan horned bull’s head adorning the prow to the serrated lizard’s tail that juts horizontally from the stern. Nevertheless, the strange and calamitous nature of this multitude of wooden caricatures is transcended by an overall grace and beauty, not transitory or ephemeral but uncompromising and enduring, traits epitomized by the glaring expression on the countenance of the figurehead.
In between head and tail the hull sits squat in the water, broader at the waterline than at the deck. Flush with its sides are three banks of hewn faces, each accorded a distinct character of its own. Common to all however is a cruel misshapen mouth, twisted and agape. From each mouth a sinuous raw tongue has emerged to hang, poised, prior to slaking its thirst. It is this that has prompted the interest of the condor.
Four huge chains hang from this hull, two fore and two aft, anchoring it against an ominous current running alongside the atoll wall. These cumbrous chains now begin to rise and to the accompaniment of their grating clatter, four bloated heads emerge from the depths to leer mockingly at the assembled ranks of their tiny brethren; the tongues that protrude from these heads are short and squat and the sea runs like drool over their barbed surfaces. No sooner have they been shipped into their recessed mountings, blending and disappearing into the sculptured backdrop, than have the oars dispensed with their poise and broken the surface below. There is a fiery gleam in the eyes of the bull as the vessel cuts effortlessly through the black deep.
But then the oars are raised, to hang again, as though their thirst has been momentarily quenched, and the prow of the vessel is slewing around, yielding to the desire of the current.
The still circling condor is now on edge for at this low level a faint noise is apparent; faint yet fundamental. An evasive flourish of the wings sends it soaring skywards, aware that below, the sideways motion of the vessel is becoming ever more pronounced, its momentum ever greater, as she begins to skirt the area of dense fog that masks the atoll’s heart. The watery fingers that reached out so tentatively when she lay at anchor have now tightened their grip. Irrevocably she is being drawn into the clutches of a monumental whirlpool, apparently pursuing her spiral path to doom with submissive finality.
As she falls from crest to trough even her topmost mast is overshadowed. Spray, now manifest as a dense effervescent mist, cascades in tortuous rivulets around the impassive carved figures on the towers and crashes onto the sloping deck timbers, there to be returned whence it came. The bull’s head disappears beneath the foaming firmament only to reemerge, unbowed and defiant, as the vessel rises almost vertically toward the final crest of that hellish vortex, her terrible fate now surely sealed.
And yet, abruptly, defiance succumbs to belligerence as above the crescendo of the maelstrom a battle horn sounds; it is a most horrendous sound, mimicking the ire of the most base of demons, undermining the sanity of every wretched soul within its bounds. Like a dying ember suddenly wafted, the leviathan glows a brighter red, her oars seek purchase and as she comes about her lizard’s tail rises higher and higher as though it is about to sting the seas into submission.
Now those oars hang fleetingly one last time, ready to pull in unison toward salvation, but before they fall the lizard’s tail flicks outward, casually, almost contemptuously, and a small glittering object arcs gracefully through the air to be lost in the fury at the very center of the whirlpool …