Figurehead – Magda Knight
I stare at the figurehead on the prow of the deck, her brass curves dulled with salt and hail. Her head tilts slightly at my approach but she doesn’t care to speak to me; her lidless eyes stare unblinkingly into the horizon.
Could they not at least have given her lids?
“You. Mrs. Nesbitt. Show some sense and get below. I tell you once, I tell you twice: you are in the way.”
Captain Mabbard may on this occasion be right; I should retreat to the safety of below decks, for the storm lies directly ahead, a dark mound in a rosy sunset, and we can’t outrun it. I’ve paid close attention to the sailors ever since we set sail but what little assistance I can offer will hardly be appreciated. I will, as the good captain makes such a point of saying, be in the way.
The figurehead twitches a finger, curling its tip as if to beckon the storm closer. I’ve not seen her fingers move before. They are attached by pins and delicate yet durable strands of hemp to the sails of the ship. As she moves her digits, the sail twitches and the airship veers away from the oncoming storm.
I consider the smoothness of her arms, the way they’ve been latched to the hull as if she carries the weight of the entire airship on her back. It’s bizarre and, I think, rather fascinating that Victorion’s women are clothed in a multitude of layers while its automatons are cast in bare-naked classic forms and left to walk the earth in all their glory. Does this mean Victorion thinks little of its automatons, or little of its women? Or am I reading too much into whims of design? It makes me less of a journalist to admit it, but I’ve never quite been able to decide.
I don’t think she is very happy, is Marionette. My name for her, of course… the sailors call her Spread Sue but I can’t refer to a fellow woman in such a manner, whether her generously rounded bubbies are brass-enamelled or not.
I look again at her twitching finger. Perhaps we’ve just had a run of bad weather and the sailors’ superstition is catching, but I’m minded to believe she creates these storm clouds with a single stern look. She’s moved us marginally away from the storm, yes, but a vestigial, primitive part of me still believes she called it in the first place.
She’s like our albatross. We mustn’t kill her, and her presence brings me nothing but bad dreams.
“I want you gone,” snarls the captain as he grips my arm. “Below. Will you not be told?”
I glare pointedly at the hand grasping my jacket. When I first met the commander of the Aether
Witch in Victorion’s bustling port he was a vision in bear-fat pomade and epaulettes, every inch the sky captain. Up here in the air, his natural territory, he looks like all his men: skin cracked red from the winds, naval insignia concealed under oilskin hood and cape, surly and unshaven.
“I will not be told. I paid well for my passage, and you accepted. I’ve no intention of being limited to the cabin.”
I’m rather glad I took this freight ship rather than the passenger liners. Not only will I reach Nova Yorka sooner, but the bitter weather and faces on this journey appeal to the romantic in me. I feel as though I have somehow, in this jaded age, managed to find a new frontier. Something wild and free of rules. The rudeness of these sailors is refreshing; it hardens the soul and armours the spirit. If one can’t deal with an insult here and there, how on earth can one be expected to deal with the Great Beyond?
I thrust my chin forward in a manner I’ve been told is either charming or aggressive, depending on whom you ask. I am certain Mabbard thinks I am the albatross, not his precious Spread Sue.
The storm cloud looms near, forked with lightning. I glare at the captain until he releases my arm.
But, recognising the sense of it, I get below deck.
Though small, the central cabin is easily capable of holding six crew along with myself, the only passenger. Normally weighted by cargo crates packed deep and tight, the ship’s hold lies empty and we make good time in favourable headwinds. Even in the face of the impending storm.
I sit myself at a table with raised edges. The mugs and plates slide about but they do not fall. Sykes and Tosher are there already, playing a hand of cards, and Sykes nods grudgingly towards the whiskey.
“Help yourself to a tipple, Mrs. Nesbitt. It’ll settle your stomach, what with the turbulence and all.”
I nod my thanks as I pour out a finger’s worth and leave the water to one side.
“God save the King!” I down my toast in a single burning gulp. I have no fear of my personal safety among these dour men of the air. They genuinely loathe the thought of a flesh-and-blood woman on board and believe that if they touch me in kindness, their ship will fall. To protect themselves from my disgusting femininity they’ve even given me a private cabin of sorts: I sleep on the floor of the pantry, jars rattling overhead. I’m safe enough; the captain and I share the only key.
I had to pay them substantially to take me on as a passenger. And, surrounded by grizzled faces and salty talk, I consider it money well-spent.
As I open my mouth to form a question the cabin judders and I cling to the table; three sailors head up to help the captain with the ship.
“Only a bit of turbulence,” says Sykes with brooding satisfaction. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Nesbitt. It’s gnat’s piss, this storm; the lads’ll deal with it. Since you’re a journalist, I expect you’ll want another drink? You seem to have relished your first.”
It’s something of a relief to be judged by my profession not my gender, especially when it comes to my capacity and taste for alcohol. With tongues loosened and metaphorical corsets unlaced by another round of whiskey, Sykes and Tosher show me how to play a hand of cards as rain lashes the portholes.
“Why on earth do you want to go to Nova Yorka anyway? With all them earthquakes off the coast last Monday it’ll be a bugger to land.” Sykes eyes me with disdain. “Why not detour to Cape Cod instead?”
“Some hunt air kraken,” I say into my whiskey tumbler. “I, however, hunt stories. My pen is my rifle. Our field journalists in Americky have succumbed to the sea, for their hotel was on Nova Yorka’s east side and it has crumbled and fallen in. What has caused the earthquakes? Is their damage done, or will the tremors continue? What is the death toll? What aid does Nova Yorka require – money, or helping hands, or prayers? What can be done to restore order? Someone must be there to tell the story. The Hourly Herald thought it best to send me.”
I consider the emptiness of my glass. “Perhaps I was sent because the editor shares your captain’s views and considers it no great loss if a journalist falls into the sea… if they are of the female persuasion. Captain Mabbard’s already threatened to have me thrown overboard, you know.”
“Don’t pay no heed to him, Mrs. Nesbitt.” Sykes flushes red beneath his unshaven cheeks. “We’ve nothing against your womanliness back on land. It’s up in the air that’s the issue, you see. Bad luck to have a woman onboard. Them sky-adventuresses can do as they please with their gussets and guns, but they’ll never set foot on the Aether Witch. Spread Sue is easily woman enough for us.”
“But you let me on board,” comes my crisp reply. “Wasn’t I one woman too many?” “Aye. But then you did offer us an awful lot of money.”
“And what’s bad luck between friends?” I say brightly. “Although… I must confess I’ve never quite understood why it’s bad luck to have a woman on ships, yet good fortune to have an unashamedly feminine creature like your Spread Sue.”
Sykes and Tosher laugh, then Sykes turns cold on me.
“She navigates, Mrs. Nesbitt. She faces the future proud and bright. We’ve done better trade since we had her installed on the ship. She’s the true face and heart of the Aether Witch.”
“And she’s got bubbies,” says Tosher helpfully. “Bare bubbies.”
“Aye,” says Sykes. “Bare bubbies.”
Sitting here drinking whiskey and playing cards, I feel an element of risk rising.
“So if I had bare bubbies I’d be more welcome aboard the ship?”
Tosher snorts and Sykes doesn’t know where to look.
“Well, aye, I suppose,” he says hesitantly. “You’d keep the rain off, at least. See, a woman
onboard is bad luck, but if she bares her bubbies she’ll stave off the foul weather. It’s a fact, that is.” “Well, your Spread Sue hasn’t done the job, then, has she?” My voice rises, for while I’d never dream of showing these sailors my bare breasts, I’m somewhat envious of the figurehead’s classical form.
“She’s done well! She’s done the job proper, she has.” Sykes favours me with his filthiest glare from under bristled brows. “Storms would be a lot worse if it wasn’t for Spread Sue.”
I hastily change the subject, for superstition is what it is, and no amount of discussion will change that.
“How does she navigate, anyway? She can’t talk. Do you stick a map in front of her and bid her track it with her eyes?”
“If she hasn’t talked to you, could be that you haven’t said anything she’s felt a need to reply to,” says Sykes with some hostility. “She talks well enough. With a lovely voice, too. She was an entertainment for fine folk before she joined us. A harpsichord player and singer. But she went out of fashion and was sold on.”
“And how do you think she feels now about being lashed to the prow, when she used to move about so freely?” Though I’m somewhat uneasy around Marionette, I can’t help but feel the urge to campaign on her behalf.
“She hasn’t complained once,” says Sykes dourly. “She hasn’t answered back, at any rate. Which is more than I could say for some.”
It’s only a gentle dig by Sykes’ standards, but I see that the whiskey has made us all fretful. As wind buffets the cabin I try to slump and relax into it, like the sailors do, and deal us all another hand of cards.
The next day is clear and sweetly cold. I dress quickly. From the porthole in the pantry I see the Sargasso Sea deep and wide and blue below us and not a cloud in sight.
After a breakfast of devilled eggs and ham I head onto the deck. Captain Mabbard is still looking at charts and whatnot in his tiny office cubbyhole below; the sailors on deck ignore me, but with what I take to be an affable air. I step along the wooden boards to the ship’s prow, where I pay my daily visit to Marionette.
“You gave me bad dreams again last night,” I say quietly. “I know it was you. I dreamed of a sea made still, and cut into great planes that swooped and shifted at odd angles. I dreamed of the reflection of a storm, of being enclosed in a tiny box of hugeness.
“Was that you, Marionette?”
The figurehead says nothing. With a delicious shudder I realise that the talk of ill fortune from the sailors has made me take temporary leave of my senses. But isn’t that what the frontier is all about? Wildness, loss of control, the unknown? When I reach Nova Yorka there’ll be scientists and politicians to interview and heads to count, attached to torsos or otherwise. A natural disaster is an awful thing,
but by its very nature not unnatural. This ship of the air, solidly suspended in nothing, this trapped figurehead of such stern beauty with her eyes that move… these are unknowns.
If Marionette had remained a harpsichordist she would have been perfectly natural. Here on the ship, she’s a thing out of place. A figurehead. Nominally the fount of all power, yet a prisoner still.
And mightn’t such a predicament lead to rage?
“The sailors like to touch your bubbies as they walk past,” I say softly. “Do you like that? Does it appeal to you? Do you cause the storms, Marionette?”
And finally she speaks.
“N’gai, n’gha’ghaa, bugg-shoggog, y’hah…”
Or something like that.
The sailors were right: her voice is lovely and amiable. Its throaty timbre makes me think of windpipes crafted from warm-hearted wood, not brass. Pipes oiled like a treasured string instrument for hundreds of years. A noble sound. I hear loss, wisdom, sadness in her tones. Tolerance. Burden and offering.
Yet the words she utters make me feel airsick.
Letting out the deep breath I had no idea I’d been holding I clutch the hand rail, acutely aware that we are thousands of feet up and there is nothing below us.
“I don’t understand…” I’m hesitant. The figurehead’s lip curls and she remains silent. I try again.
“May I call you Marionette? Do you have a name you prefer? What is your name?” “None. My name is only a casing.”
“Do you mind when the sailors touch your bubbies, Marionette? Does it disgust you?” “No,” she says in a voice without inflection. “They touch only my casing.”
“Does it appeal to you?”
“Do you cause the storms?” There. It’s madness, but I’ve said it again. My head is still a tumble
of images from last night’s dreams. Maybe she’ll reply this time.
“I would like to cause them. But no.”
“But how? And why?”
Marionette stays silent. If it wasn’t for the distant conversation of the sailors back at the stern, I’d struggle to believe my ears could still hear in this eternity of quiet. No sound from the passing wind or the rippling sea far, far below.
“What were those strange words you spoke, anyway?” My words falter but my hands don’t. “And how do you spell them?” Ever the journalist, I pull a notebook from an inner pocket in my jacket and begin to scrawl the foreign words down exactly as they were said.
“N’gai, n’gha’ghaa, bugg-shoggog, y’hah: Dagon, Dagon,” repeats Marionette dutifully, though she does not offer to spell them. I notice that she has added two words at the end.
She turns her head infinitesimally and replies with tones of infinite yet weary patience. “It means that the stars are in their correct alignments. And that Dagon comes.”
“And what does that mean? Are you referring to navigation? And who or what is Dagon? And… how do you spell it?” My hand flies across the page, noting and cross-referencing; my pen has always moved faster than my thoughts.
Damnation. Back to terse replies again, just when I thought we’d made a breakthrough. I thought we were women together, confiding in each other. If she’d spoken such words to the sailors, surely they would have mentioned it.
“If I’m to understand, I need your assistance,” I beg. “You shouldn’t be chained up like this. I’d like to help, but I don’t understand what you want, Marionette. Or, indeed, what you are.” I hadn’t even thought I wanted to help her until I’d said the words out loud. I’d assumed I just wanted to find out what quality of hers it was that made me so uneasy. Perhaps one automaton’s plight is easier to feel kinship with than the fate of millions of Nova Yorka residents tumbled violently back into the ocean from which, long ago, they came.
I’m glad I’ve inadvertently offered my help, however. To this, at least, Marionette has some kind of reply.
“What am I? A servant…” Her voice lightens; it trickles across the crosswind in a bubbling stream.
“I was made to make music, to serve men who love music. I was sold to men who both love the air and despise it to serve no purpose save to manipulate sails. I express my satisfaction at servitude. But it is important to serve the right ones.”
“The sailors of the Aether Witch?”
At this Marionette’s head rotates in a half-circle like an owl, her eyes suffused with blank scorn. “No.”
The wind puffs up a little. The sun still hangs in the sky, fat and close to our heads and glinting the sea a rich blue, but the fluffy clouds dotted here and there coalesce at a speedy rate. Now that I’ve been at sea for a few days, even I can tell those clouds will join to form one fat rain-rich monstrosity. It may be hours off yet, but another storm comes.
In spite of further questions, Marionette refuses to tell me any more about Dagon or the strange language she speaks, other than that a whey-faced stranger had wandered up to her when we were last moored, touched her face (not, I notice, her bubbies) and whispered a few words in her perfectly- rendered ear that made her decide to be a servant of Dagon. Whatever Dagon is and whatever becoming his (or her) servant entails, Marionette simply will not say.
In the end, my line of questioning proves futile. But at least we have finally conversed, I think. Perhaps becoming better acquainted with the ship’s figurehead will ease the relentless strangeness of my dreams.
It is Sunday today. I don’t know if the sailors on the Aether Witch are religious men, yet one thing is certain: they certainly like to drink on a Sunday. Even Captain Mabbard joins in, downing a shot of whiskey with his beef wellington breakfast, and as he converses with his crew I see his face break into a smile for the first time.
“Topsy-turvy day, we call it.” Sykes offers me a pinch of snuff, seeming to have dealt with his superstitions by making me an honorary man. “It’s an Aether Witch tradition. Everything is turned on its head on a Sunday, since there’s precious little else by way of entertainment. Dinner for breakfast, pudding before savoury, whiskey at all hours…”
“Does it extend so far as having the captain swab the decks?” A facile question for me to ask, but it is Topsy-turvy day, after all.
“That it does, Mrs. Nesbitt.” I turn to see Mabbard clutching a frying pan, for he is the one that has been cooking our Sunday breakfast. “And today you shall be a man in our eyes. But don’t forget that Topsy-turvy Sunday is always followed by a Monday, drear as you please…”
We drink heavily through the day, admittedly at my encouragement, and by late lunch I realise that might have been something of an error on my part; once again, a storm brews. I am still unable to judge distance as well as I would like, with so few landmarks in these aetherial waters to give a true indication of size. The storm seems some way behind us, but I’ve learned how quickly it can reach a vessel if the winds are not on our side.
Nevertheless, it is too late to worry about that now. Lunch has been a picnic of cheese and cold meats spread out on oilskins, and we all sit cross-legged on the deck as Tosher brings out an accordion.
Delighted to be a nominal crew member at last, I laugh and clap my hands as the crew of the Aether Witch belts out one sonorous sea shanty after another; some of them rough, some melodic and harmonised, and all of them filthy-rude.
I very rarely get drunk, mostly on account of my habit of drinking regularly enough to avoid such vulgarities, but I can tell I am, indeed, tipsy when I mistakenly stuff Sykes’ snuff into my cheek like a wad of tobacco.
“You know, Marionette used to play the harpsichord. And sing.”
“Who the devil’s bells is Marionette?” Sykes’ words are slurred, and I feel an impish pride that it was I who forced this mischief upon him.
“I mean your Spread Sue,” I reply, not wishing to cause offence by explaining my reasons for changing her name. “Your figurehead. She can sing.”
“Aye, and now she’s our sailsmistress.” Mabbard looks at me as if I was mad. “A far more worthy profession. What of it?”
“Well… perhaps we should sing something she knows,” I say. “Then she can join in. You’ll forgive me for noting that her voice is far better than ours.”
Mabbard slaps me on the back. “A capital idea!” he roars. “A song, then, for the brass lady… a landlubber’s song such as she might know!”
We try so many songs. So many hymns and carols and the national anthem… But the figurehead is silent. Instead, as I peer at her, or at two of her, if I’m honest about how much whiskey I’ve consumed, I see her head has rotated fully round to eye the storm clouds closing on us and her fingers twitch irritably on the sails, pulling them to and fro to snatch up as much wind as possible and increase the distance between us and the storm.
“Look.” I point it out to the captain, but he has already tugged on his oilskin. His muzzy eyes are once more hard as flint, and I have the feeling it’s not the first time he’s been piss-drunk in a true storm.
Picnic things are kicked out of the way as Sykes and the other men leap to their positions with notable speed. Adrenaline has even cleared me of my own drunken fugue. I have experienced vertigo and bad dreams and all manner of fear on this voyage: but now the storm is right on our tail, and as lightning forks from it and thunder deafens my ears it is as though we are being swallowed into God’s very own brain.
“Lash yourself to the rails!” roars the captain and I do as he says. I realise that this is no ordinary storm. It cannot be. Mabbard’s not sent me below; he’d rather lose a passenger than dismiss another potential hand on deck.
Wrapping a coil of hemp round my waist and latching it to the windward jackline on the handrail, I try to stay out of harm’s way as the crew fling themselves from starboard to port, trying to reef the main sails and ready the smaller headsail while jettisoning gas from the companion balloon’s large central hull. The crew do everything they can to descend through the storm’s eye while Marionette jitters and twitches her fingers and does what she can with the sails.
Even I help. Under barked orders from Sykes I tension the headsail halyard, helping him to move the jib sheet leads aft to flatten the foot of the headsail and to twist off air aloft. Maritime poetry translated into physical action.
A part of me thinks we will die. Tumbling into the sea, we’ll perish as surely as did those poor unfortunate souls in Nova Yorka. Another part of me thrills; this is the unknown, slapping me in the face with wind and stinging rain, tearing my hands raw with slippery hemp rope which tries to drag itself from my hands no matter how fierce my hold.
This is a living story, and I am part of it. The unknown is all around me and in my eyes and ears, and I cannot help but feel peace.
And then we’re speeding down, down like an arrow. Such a steep slope on a mountain of nothing.
Mabbard calls to me, but his words are snatched away by the storm, and I determine his words most because I see his lips move. “Spread Sue is taking us down! Safe beneath the storm’s main weight!”
I take his word for it. I have to trust him; I can do little else. As we descend at our fierce pace I soon realise that he is right; this headlong tumble is a controlled and graceful dive, with Marionette tirelessly working the headsail, her fingers plucking delicately yet with the strength of a dozen men.
Nevertheless, the dive is steep. With what little strength I have left, I cling to the rails and close my eyes. And begin to sing. The tune comes ragged at first, then sweet and low. It is a sweet sound, almost like a lullaby, the opposite of everything a storm could be.
If I get to the end of the song, I will live, I think. I am sure of it. A sailor’s superstition, and one of my own strange making. But I believe fervently in it, the way a child trusts in tooth fairies. Eyes closed, I’m dimly aware that the thunder strikes not about my ears but somewhere above us, and I can now hear waves crashing in the sea.
As the Aether Witch judders I open my eyes with a snap. This juddering is not natural, I think. And then I see it. The figurehead is finally, at the worst of all possible times, responding to my song….
Passemezzo di nome antico. It’s a sixteenth century tune by the Italian composer Marco Facoli. Written, I believe, for the harpsichord. For all her talk of constellations and servitude, Marionette – or whatever her name might be – remembers her original purpose in the scheme of things.
With fingers attached to sails tugging erratically this way and that, she can recall the tune I’m humming, and she’s trying to play.
With this ditty I will surely kill us all. Yet fear makes me sing on, for I believe with a sailor’s fervour that if I stop, I will die.
We careen towards the waves. Eyes fixed on the moiling Sargasso Sea, I view an island rise out of the water, the waves writhing around it.
“Dagon!” The figurehead screams with wild joy. Her voice sounds like the trumpets of a thousand angels on the very last day.
As the island rises further I realise it is a humped back, scaled and vast, and the entity whose spine it forms is larger still. There is a venting, hooting sound as the creature raises its hideous head and emits measured calls that resonate in my guts even more than Marionette’s speech in that strange foreign tongue. Its gigantic dark-scaled arms rise up to pull the Aether Witch closer into its maw, and the figurehead howls with delight.
“Thank you!” Her mellifluous voice rises into a screech as she faces me with a terrible lack of expression on her burnished face.
“N’gai, n’gha’ghaa, bugg-shoggog, y’hah! Dagon! Dagon!”
This is, perhaps, her Dagon, I muse as waves slap against the undersides of the airship. Fear has made me calm and still, time stretched like India rubber. Perhaps Dagon is a dark god striding the unknown terrain of the sea. Perhaps the constellations were right, and it has been awakened or freed. Perhaps it wasn’t naturally-formed earthquakes that took the people of Nova Yorka. Perhaps the ripping of the land was a result of the morning rise-and-shine greeting of the most unnatural thing I have ever seen.
And then the cold waves blessedly take me, the crew, the damned figurehead and ship into numbing void, and I know no more.
I awake to find myself encased in a box that matches every line in my body, with empty space only where my breasts are. My flat bubbies.
Two small portholes lie before my eyes. The Sargasso Sea has underwater visibility of up to two hundred feet, I am told, and as I move through the depths I view everything all too clearly.
A strange keening thrums all around me, sonorous but echoed by the ocean’s mass. A tune.
Passemezzo di nome antico.
I do not know why, but Marionette has saved me. She ripped herself free of the ship’s prow and took me into herself, and left the rest of the crew to drown or be consumed.
“Why?” My voice echoes oddly, pressed flat by metal and lack of space.
She is all around me. I’m sure she can hear me. I hear her tune; I know she can speak.
But Marionette does not reply. She flounders towards a great scaled living tower of flesh, its dulled eyes the size of St. Paul’s domed roof.
And she should be in my power. I’m a human, like her creator. She’s in my debt, for I’d unwittingly sung the notes that let her navigate down to the sea where she felt she most belonged. With this thing. This Dagon.
She was born to serve, but it’s not me nor any daughter or son of mankind she serves.
I am carried onward, her trapped figurehead, her esteemed charge, her prisoner. And the ocean’s currents undulate us ever-closer towards the horror of the true unknown.
@MagdaKnight is the Co-founding Editor of www.mookychick.co.uk, an alternative lifestyle site and community for (mainly) young women. She writes cross-genre fantasy and horror, and tells YA tales that glow in the dark. She has never quite gotten over the joy of writing for 2000AD, home of Judge Dredd.