here is Ben's story:
“Oh, yes, we have been to see old Nightingale!”
“It isn’t true, no-one aboard has ever laid eyes upon him.”
“We both have seen him, and I have seen him twice. He lives alone in the hold of the boat, and never comes out on deck, not even when the Cat’n almost dropped the pudding overboard.”
“We crept down when all were asleep, and we saw him.”
“Then what does he look like?”
“It was terribly dark down there; it wasn’t easy to see him at all…”
“Liar! You never have set eyes upon him!”
“…but in the half light of the moon, the very little light that fell into the hold, we saw his long, long, fur, matted and tangled, rising and falling as he slept a deep, dreamless sleep.”
“However do you know it was a dreamless sleep?”
“Then, (and I feel a shiver go down my spine even to tell it) he stirred, and suddenly his eye was open and it fell upon us. One great, pale eye, like the moon itself, wet and rimmed with pink, and smirched round about with thick, yellow, substances. For an age, he looked at us, and we looked back at him, and the only sound was the creaking of the boat’s timbers and the breaking of the waves on the hull.”
Masha was listening now, the hair on her neck ever so slightly raised, as her grandfather continued his tale. She wriggled closer against her grandmother’s belly, feeling safe in the embrace of the downy white fur that furnished that round, warm pillow of a stomach.
“It seemed that he was about to speak to us. His dry mouth opened slowly, ever so slowly, and a sound like a broken record player scratching a copy of Tunnel of Love filled our ears. The inside of his mouth was gluey-looking. Long stalactites of spittle hung down from his pallet, and then...there was silence.”
“What did you do then, grandfather?” Masha was straining forward, her eyes wide and her whiskers trembling. Her grandfather exchanged a glance with his wife.
“That will have to wait until tomorrow night, my dear.”
Masha lay in her basket, listening to the strains of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love drifting from the deck, where the older cats prowled about as they did every evening after she had been put to bed. She tried hard to keep her mind off that terrible image of Nightingale sitting, filthy and horrible in the dark. It was impossible, whether she closed her eyes tightly or kept them open. Nightingale’s single, staring eye loomed out of the darkness, fixed upon her. Just a few feet below her! The music continued, and she could hear the words, rasping like a cat’s tongue on the bottom of an empty bowl:
“Fat man sitting on a little stool…”
Her heart was beating like a hummingbird’s wings as she uncurled from her basket. To get below decks she would have to leave the cabin and pass, unseen by the older cats, right past the record player to the hatch. She padded silently across the cabin floor, staying just out of the wedge of moonlight that divided the cabin in two. Upon reaching the door, she stopped. Keeping her nose flat to the frame of the door, she inched her face towards the opening. First her whiskers appeared around the edge, then one oversized ear, and finally, her right eye. She could see several of the older cats still on deck, some looking out over the edge of the boat.
The Pacific Ocean looked like transparent milk.
Springsteen played on. She took a last look back at her basket.
“…smiles and whispers good luck. Cuddle up angel, cuddle up my little dove…”
Masha lifted one paw, watched it as though it were no longer a part of her, and set it down on the other side of the door. Sinking her body low to the deck, she skulked from board to board, her ears swivelling on high alert. She slipped from shadow to shadow, slowly, ever slower. A white bird, ghost-like, swooped low over the deck, bringing yowls of loathing from the cats. As it passed silently overhead, the cats turned to follow it with their eyes. Their tails were bristling with hatred, their ears flattened to their heads. Masha dived out of sight, beneath the table upon which stood the record player. The music seemed to have the solidity of iron as it pressed down upon her head. She could hear the needle hissing in the groove with the same venom as the cats had hissed at the lime-white bird.
“But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough…”
Two more steps and she was through the hatch.
“There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark, brother.”
The first cat to wake was Coco. The sun was glaring off the Pacific Ocean. He stretched his back, concave, convex, and padded over to the edge of the deck.
“Shit still looks like a big puddle, man.”
He spat, distractedly, into the water. The sun still illuminated the surface. A shadow passed over the water where he gazed after his spittle. Looking up, he saw that the bird was still making lazy passes overhead, crying out in its voice as ragged as the threadbare flag that flew day and night from the mizzen mast. The albatross dropped lower, below the flag, below the mainsail, a few feet from the deck, and passed over the boat from end to end. Coco felt a rush of air on his whiskers. The great pale bird held its course, becoming a black spot against the burning sunrise. Coco stared into the sunrise until his eyes hurt.
“Shit look like the whole ocean on fire.”
He grew bored of the sunrise and started off towards the record player. Some of the other cats were awake now. He passed the old pair who lived in the cabin with their granddaughter. Their tails were low, almost brushing the floor. He got up on his hind legs and flicked the record player on. He stretched out to enjoy the music.
“…then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us, you and me all that stuff we’re so scared of.”