Bounding the steep acclivities which seethed Upon the deep, some remnants of his raft— Spars and their fastenings—withheld the sea From closing upon the man its watery folds. Beyond the spiring waves, the heavens shook With thunder. A towering wave advanced Over the dreadful aspect of the ocean, Aspiring to conceal the heavens, And toppled upon him, dashing the man From what remained of his raft, spreading far The spars over the rush. Yet did he grasp And mount a final portion, as though to ride The un-stabled canter of the waves to shore. Then a livid light convulsed the air and water With ruin, and in his heart the man at last Relented. Doffing the garments Calypso had woven, he offered Himself to the mercy of the untamable And welling sea, and dove.
“Barton masterminded the deal. He knew a lot about the oyster business. But that was all he knew.” — The Oyster Pirates, Adam, March, 1973, Vol. 54, No. 4
In shuffling through old archives I recently stumbled across Adam Magazine, a curious mixture of erotica, corny comedy sketches and pulp fiction. The stories were of mixed quality, but one of them, entitled, The Oyster Pirates stood out to me.
The plot, like the prose, is simple: Doyle, a down-on-his luck prawn fisher is approached by a “enthusiastic” oyster dealer and refrigeration mechanic named Barton, who offers a singular proposal to sail with him to the island of Toraki Island in search of a “special kind of oyster” which are “as big as a saucer.” Barton asserts they’ll fetch a pretty penny in Sydney.
There is just one problem.
Fishing on the island of Toraki is illegal.
Doyle is hesitant. Barton, however, proves too persuasive and the two agree to split the profits 50-50, and together with Doyle’s friend, Smiley, a “raw-boned half-caste” of Aboriginal origin, set off upon the Esmeralda for the isle of Toraki.
When the trio arrive, Barton strikes up a deal with the local chieftain. In accord with their deal, the chief lets out some of the men and women of his tribe. With a massively expanded labor pool, oysters begin swiftly piling up. However, things quickly sour, when Barton, soused, chastises the chief’s son, slandering and physically abusing him. Doyle objects but Barton pays his partner no heed. Weeks pass and the trio assembles a mighty haul, which they estimate to be worth some $10,000.
Doyle is pleased and when the refrigeration unit in the ship’s hold becomes unreliable, suggests they return and cash in on their adventure. Barton, drunk, declines, declaring that he wants “a full load.” Doyle then suggests his partner “lay off the booze” because he was treating the natives “too rough” which enrages the blonde oyster hunter. Barton tells Doyle to “go to hell,” and beats Smiley over the head with a bottle after discovering the Aboriginal had been sneaking sips of whiskey, nearly killing the poor man. Doyle, furious at this fresh indignity, demands they depart to seek medical attention for Smiley, but again Barton declines and having paid for the entire trip, has Doyle and Smiley wholly within his power.
The next day a native frantically approaches Doyle and points to the jungle, but lacking the linguistic proficiency, is unable to tell him what is amiss. Doyle heads to the jungle for the stories penultimate climax and finds Barton, in a drunken fit, attempting to force himself upon the beautiful native, Triki. She attempts to resist the oyster pirate but he easily overpowers her. From behind, the Chief’s Son creeps in from the foliage to the left, spear in hand, seeking revenge for his previous humiliation at Barton’s hands. Doyle shouts a warning and raises his rifle at which point the girl, Triki falls into the water as Barton whirls, pistol in hand, thinking Doyle the threat. Immediately thereafter, from the water of the nearby river, a hungry crocodile emerges, imperiling the beautiful woman.
Doyle is faced with a impossible choice: Shoot the chief’s son, shoot the crocodile or shoot Barton. He shoots the crocodile, saving the woman, as the Chief’s Son kills Barton with his spear.
Doyle buries Barton there, on Toraki isle and, with Smiley, returns to civilization.
The big oysters prove to be a sensation in Sydney, just as Barton had predicted.
I really enjoyed the tale, which faintly reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Polanski’s Nóż w wodzie (1962).
Like Heart of Darkness, the story sees men of civilization venturing into untamed lands where mysterious natives dwell, but yet never tips-over into strict dichotomizing of either the old paradigm of civilized vs savage (for the upkeep of civilization mandates savagery), nor the new paradigm of industrial exploiter vs noble primitive (to dispel this Rousseauian myth one need only take a cursory survey of the prehistorical archaeological record of our ancestors), nor ever engages in finger wagging moralizing, which, even when in competent hands, has a damping effect upon the pacing of a plot as a mechanical necessity.
Like Nóż w wodzie, the story centers on the conflict between its two male leads: the noble, if not particularly heroic, Doyle, and the ruthless, power-mad Barton; though, unlike Nóż w wodzie, the source of their disputation is not a woman, but money. Greed, or perhaps, more accurately, the inability to moderate desire, forms the central theme of the work and acts as the catalyst for the spectacular set-pieced showdown of the climax; for if Barton had simply heeded Doyle’s suggestion, he’d have escaped the retribution of the native. For Barton, however, he could never have enough, not enough money, social control, sex or alcohol. Ruin, a invariable outgrowth of his disregard for the Paracelsusian formulation; sola dosis facit venenum.
Villavic sat upon a large flat stone before the crackling fire, his lean body hunched, chin upon his entwined and roughened fingers, knuckles rough as sand. The rock-sitter’s tatterdemalion companions told him their tales; of their lives and loves and losses and how they were swept into the scouring-purge for mechanical heresy. After they had finished the waif came up to Villavic and laid her head upon his lap and closed her eyes. He ran his fingers through her hair and watched the light play across the cave walls like Togalu Gombeyaata. When the wind died down and the snow stopped half the travelers moved from the cave carrying their sacks of flour as their stomachs ached with hunger and the sky darked with encroaching thunderheads. Led by Gunter, the forging party endeavoured to find any clean-looking water-source beyond the marsh which shrouded the outer bounds of the forest like a giant moat. Their quest came to an end after eight days trudging through snapping ferns and ruddy shrubs through the discovery of a small river that cut in a wide arc to the northeast of the cave. They fanned out over the silt-strewn and rocky ground of the beach in search of food. Desire and pain subsuming their somas as they rutted through the melting snow and filth, skittering over the crackling earth-skin like pale and malformed crabs. Some licking the stones. Others consuming the moss and lichen, where eft and vole eschewed those looming, odd-angling shadows and slipped out of all sight. Failing to find anything else to eat, other than bitter leaves and poisonous berries, they mixed the flour with water and ate it with great rapidity. Shortly thereafter came fits of pain, aches of the stomach, inflammations of the lung. Dysentery and other ailments. Another snow storm blew in and forced the forgers to scurry into a small burrow that looked to have been vacated by a family of deer. Within the week, half the men had died and when Gunter returned to the cave only five followed with him and they ragged and sickly. They found the cave barren save a large lizard which raised up its head and blinked and then scurried off into the abyssal lower dark. Gunter swore and collapsed against the cold, stone entrance, crying and moaning like a wounded animal.
“We’re all going to die here. We’re all going to die.”
The Barkeep looked to the giant of the man, curled fetal at the cavern’s maw-like threshold, rocking like a fitful child and shook his head sadly. For a long while words escaped him and then he mustered the syllables that slow frothed from his starved and insensate brain.
“Maybe. You don’t know to a certainty. Ain’t no use cawing bout it.”
“They’re all dead. They’re all dead.”
“We don’t know where Villavic’s group went but I don’t see any bodies. Don’t see any blood. Here or outside. Unlikely they’re dead. Villavic’s sharp and Derrick is right capable of defending the gals. I knew him slight. Before the purge.”
The three young men who accompanied them conversed amongst themselves and when The Barkeep turned to them they fell silent. They looked worried.
The Keep didn’t like the look in their eyes. Greedy and feral. They had been those who had kept to the outer edges of the crowd when all the prisoners had landed and been freed. They’d always kept to themselves and seldom spoken. He wondered if they were brothers. Their features bespoke as much.
Garth, the evident leader of the youthful trio began babbling as Gunter continued to moan.
“What are we going to do? We… We’ll starve if we kept at it. If we don’t do something. You saw… saw what happened to those that drank from the river. Died. Shit themselves to death. Water. Its poison. This whole fucking island is poisoned.”
Suddenly there came a hideous cry and following it a rusted machete. Gareth screamed and dropped to his knees as the brand sliced into his skull and continued to scream as its wielder withdrew the weapon and then brought it down again and again and again.
Villavic thanked the waif for her pains and she responded with but a vacant stare and together they bound Gunter at the wrists and ankles with the twine from the flour sacks as half the party moved into the cave. The waif wanted to go with Villavic but he insisted she stay and he and sixty of the men strode from the minor shelter of the cave entrance, which was too small and narrow to sleep within and trekked out into the snowy wasted forest.
The men slept in hollows and some burrowed half under the ground, covered over with leaves and what dirt could be dislodged from the frigid and clay-rich earth. When Villavic awoke at sunrise and rose from the hollow which he had chosen to sleep in, some hundred feet from the cave, fifty of his companions lay dead, frozen to their resting place like grotesque statues, strangely tranquil. Villavic stood a long while, shocked and mind-blank and then moved from body to body, staring down at each and every face as the survivors from the cave and the hollows emerged and swirled about the corpses.
He wondered at their names and stories so swift snatched by nature’s ceaseless savagery as a woman dropped to her knees and let up a scream and began to weep. Villavic asked the waif why the woman wept. The waif replied that they had been lovers, Carmine and Ericka, whose wedding ceremony had been interrupted by The Regime upon their discovery of Carmine’s mechanical proclivities which had been found heretical by the Cultural Ministry, whereupon they had been given the choice of execution or exile. They chose the latter.
Villavic nodded sadly and moved to Ericka’s side and comforted the woman who collapsed against him, squeezing his arms with her small, frail hands, blood-cracked by the wind. Moments later a howl let out from the direction of the cavern.
Keen eyes watched the survivors of the storm bury the dead and remove themselves to the cave beneath the tors, eyes that ranged over teeth slick with human blood and bladed hands that tensed with feral excitement.
The scavenger watched the newcomers from a tor-borne perch above the marsh. They had found the body. It was only a matter of time until those that had put it there found them. He did not envy them their predicament.
Villavic and the hundred and nineteen cast-aways trudged up out of the marsh to the north, shuddering with the cold and all the while not a single soul spoke. Villavic’s mind churned relentlessly, with thoughts of the terror in the swamp and what could possibly have done it. It was no native island animal, of that he was certain. He had seen nothing but crows and gulls and lizards and insects since he had been interred on the worthless strip of land and all such creatures proved unaccustomed to Man and his ceaseless intrusion and darted for the shadows or the sky upon his approach. It had been a man. Or a woman. Or a band thereof. Who were they? Why had they committed such an atrocity? Perhaps there was no accounting for it, he thought dejectedly. Why did cats torture their prey, sometimes without eating it? He could find no answer. There seemed to be no evolutionary advantage to the action, no increase in survivability, if anything, the feline’s decadence both wasted energy and put it in danger of becoming prey itself.
The pangs of hunger there overtook him and broke the man from dark reverie. He paused and unshouldered the sacks of flour and rolled his shoulder with a grunt of pain and looked to the hideous swamp, now behind him. The scent of moldering fungus and decaying vegetal matter seethed about the forest which rose up around the wayward prison-band. The temperature dropped in tandem with the rise of the moon, which shone like the eye of some ghastly and eldritch being and snow began to flutter from the sky.
“What kind of place is this?” Derrick exclaimed.
“Cursed.” The old crone declared with some difficulty, “Cursed.” Shortly, the old crone swayed and slumped against a young fir, too tired to continued on as the mangy congregation surrounding let up a cry of dismay at their ill fortune. Murmurs of discontent rebounded throughout the forest.
“Where are we going? We’re on an island, there is no where to go.” A burly ex-boxer grunted.
“Better in the forest than on the shoreline. ‘specially with a storm coming in. Look at the clouds.” A middle-aged and mustached barkeep replied.
The waif braced the old woman and struggled to move her from the fir to a mossy, low cave some fifty feet off in the distance as the wind kicked up and tore at cloth and skin. Villavic gave a shout for all to press for the cave at which point the murmuring ceased and all looked with hungry hope towards the dark crevace. A disputation erupted when it was discovered that only half of their number could fit within the cavern. A fist fight broke out and shortly Villavic’s voice thundered across the portal to the abyss as the snow began to stream in thick whorls.
“Enough. Fighting will gain us nothing. All the elderly, young, womenfolk and sickly should be allowed harbourage therein, all else, who’er of sturdier stock, can find other safety elsewhere and, at daybreak, we can meet once more.”
“Are you mad, man?” The ex-boxer growled, stalking towards Villavic threateningly, “If we stay out here throughout the night, there won’t be a morning. We wouldn’t live to see daybreak.”
“Only if we stay out in the open. Your name?”
“Help me, a moment,” Villavic gestured to the big man with his left arm and girded the snow from his face with his right and moved to a fallen tree branch, thick and gnarled, like a withered hand.
“Help your bloody self, you fool.” The pugilist turned his back on Villavic and strode imperiously towards the cave, when a few of the men tried to stop him and talk he struck he shunted them aside. A brawl erupted once more. The women and children ran from the broil and hid in the cave as the men grappled neath the auspices of the wind’s savage increase.
“Imbeciles,” Villavic muttered before flinging himself into the fray, heading straight for the prime instigator.
“Gunter, there is no time for this idiocy.” Villavic’s voice, despite its strength, was barely audible above the skyhowl. The men around the fringes of the contest paused and watched like famished wolves as Gunter turned to his challenger. Villavic stood tall. Their gaze met like rending steel. Muscles tensed. Seconds later there came a dull thud and the big man crumpled to the snowy ground. Behind him stood the waif with a long, thick tree branch in her scarred and shaking hands.
The wind hissed and twined like ethereal snakes above the taiga. All was silent save the cawing of crows who high-circled the heads of the prisoners on the creaking ferry and they one hundred and twenty in number, all chained and over-watched by guards who moved pendulously, left to right, machine guns at-the-ready, eyes masked by helmet-dark. One lit up a cigarette and watched a pack of crows tear an eagle from the sky without comment or concern.
No distinction was made nor given to that swelling fearful mass of fletynge flesh, all similarly garbed in gray, tattered wool, white bands of incrimination upon every arm, distinguishable in the failing light due only their size and pallor. Though all fettered shook with the chill casting off the water like the spirit of death, none dared raised their voice in protest to the bandless sentries who stalked the deck like clockwork toys.
Gregor Villavic starred at the chains about his wrists and ankles and followed them to their source in the side of the ship. If the vessel capsized there would, for the prisoners, be no escape. He turned and watched a pale boy look to his arm band and thought of his ragged little body eaten by fish, bloated by wave-churn and parasites. The child whispered that his armband reminded him of his mother’s tablecloth and that it had been tied too tight by the guards. He asked if Villavic would remove it. The man shook his head and leaned against cold steel of the ship, “If I try to take it off, they’ll shoot us. You know why this is happening. Why they put that on you?”
The boy shook his head.
Villavic nodded, more to himself than the boy and arched his back to view the island, fast encroaching. The isle was small and uneven and covered in mist and strange jutting tors that looked like the ferne halwes to a deity beyond all reckoning. When the ship made landfall the guards ordered the prisoners up and set a plank and disembarked and loosed their fleshy cargo on a rock outcrop just beyond the shore as the wind tore above them like an insane curse. The guards threw them four bags of flour and told them that should they try to leave the island they would drown and should they not, they’d be shot by the villagers on the land surrounding who were under orders from the regional regime.
An old woman wailed and began to cry like as the women and the waves lashed the shore and soiled the sediment with foam like the blood of some cthonic beast and then receded as a strange bird loosed a howl as if in welcome.
Villavic stood up straight and addressed the crowd, “I know none of you. Not your names, nor your religion or from whence you came. None of that matters now. All that matters is cooperation. You there,” He pointed to a bald middle aged man missing an eye and most of his front teeth.
“Derrick.” The bald man replied flatly, his glassy eyes flicking to Villavic and then back to the prison ship as it ghosted into the mist and vanished from sight.
“Derrick, you look fitter than most, can you help me carry the flour.”
The bald man nodded.
“Good. Lets try and find a place to sleep. Somewhere further inland.”
The women weren’t listening and the old crone sobbed and hugged herself, muttering a prayer under her breath and rocking back and forth.
“What is her name?”
Derrick shrugged. A reedy waif spoke up with suddenness.
“Olga, sir. She doesn’t speak yer tongue.”
“Do you speak hers, girl?”
The waif nodded and addressed the crone who nodded solemnly and said a final prayer and rose awkwardly, so weak with fear and the depredations of the crossing that she could barely stand. Villavic gestured for all to rise and shortly the crowd was brought under his control and he lead them from the southern shore to the north, up a steep incline which flattened out into a filthy marsh, coated at every turn with skeletal brush and reeds the bones of animals. Up went a wail as the crone fell to her knees in the filth, making a sign that was unfamiliar to all but the waif and she gasping with terror the whole of her pallid frame. When Villavic followed their gaze he cursed neath his breath.
Laying in the muck before the women was a human skull, slick with blood.
Derrick and an old man with a long gray beard sided up to Villavic as the waif led the crone away from the horror.
“That poor soul was hewn to pieces. Hair and flesh still cling to it. Whatever killed the man, they did it not long ago.” The old man intoned grimly.
Villavic surveyed the settling dark apprehensively and responded flatly.