The Jonah by R. C. Capasso

In 1763, an orphaned teenager is put in service of a ship's cook on a cursed voyage; by R. C. Capasso.

It was my first and last voyage.

In 1763 I was fourteen years old and an orphan. My parents died within hours of each other from cholera. An aging uncle took me in, but after a week he too sickened. His last act committed me as cabin boy to Jacobs, captain of a trading ship. I knew nothing of the sea, but I had no choice.

When I boarded, Cook claimed me and thrust a bottle into my hand. The ship owner was expected on board to bid us a profitable voyage. The bottle was for him and the captain.

I'd just knocked on the captain's door when boots thudded along the passageway. The door opened, and I slid into the captain's quarters with two men behind me.

The owner shook the captain's hand. "The vessel's looking fine!"

Captain Jacobs nodded, his eyes going to the man standing at the door.

The owner's smile wavered. "Now hear me out before you say anything. This gentleman has booked passage to your first port of call."

"Passage!" The captain frowned. "Martin, you know very well -"

"The Fair Winds is no passenger ship. Of course I know. I do own it." Martin emphasized the last words. "He just asks for a berth until your first landing."

"I can sleep on the deck."

All eyes turned to the stranger. Tall and thin, he wore a long black cloak and a wide-brimmed hat obscuring his eyes.

The captain's frown deepened. "We've supplies and space for the crew only."

Martin squared his shoulders. "He's paying his way. You'll get your share when you return, with extra for him."

Captain Jacobs turned to the stranger. "You want to go to West Africa? That's where we're bound. Nothing there for a pleasure traveler."

"That's right."

"You've a reason to leave the country quickly, Mister...?"

The stranger didn't move. "Nothing to concern you."

The captain stood, his face reddening. "No one boards unless I'm sure of him. I answer for every soul on this vessel. So state your name and reason for sailing, sir, or leave."

The man pulled off his hat and lifted his head, revealing a thin, angular face with jutting cheekbones. A scar snaked across his forehead, losing itself in thick, unruly hair. "My name is Brennan. I have family in Africa. They're in difficulty and need me. I'll double what I've already given Mr. Martin."

Martin took a step forward, eyes brightening. Without another word, Brennan opened a leather bag and poured gold pieces into Martin's palm. The coins clinked as Martin spoke. "Captain Jacobs, you will take Mr. Brennan to your first port of call."

The captain shook his head. His glance fell on me and with sudden anger he shouted, "Away with you!"

Clumsily I set the wine on the table. I met the stranger's eyes as I backed away and scuttled out the door.

That night, my first at sea, I saw the stranger leaning over the railing, staring into the water. He cut a strange figure, motionless and out of place. He fingered something, then thrust it into a pocket inside his coat. As I turned away, I saw the captain on the poop deck, his gaze locked on Brennan with a grim, unreadable expression. Dead on my feet from the day's work and the unfamiliar rock of the ship under me, I hurried to my berth.

The nightmares found me even at sea. My parents walking away, heads bowed, refusing to speak to me. Dark, obscure figures circling, leading me to a double graveside. And now the captain shouting, pushing me aside, face twisted in rage. I woke sweating as I had each night for months.

The days fell into a routine as Cook kept me busy. I hauled buckets of food to the crew's mess and proper meals to the captain. Every hour I missed home, yet at least ship life was novel; nothing familiar forced memories upon me, except the night and the darkness of my berth.

On the third day the captain fell ill with fever. I found him sprawled in his chair, red splotches marking his sweating face. I backed off, hurrying to Cook for help. A heaviness settled over the crew, though we continued on course.

The next day a sailor fell from the crow's nest. A bizarre fall, as the ship cut cleanly through the sea. No reason, not even a cry. Just a body arcing through the sky like a tossed stone, plunging into the water. The mate shouted, and everyone on deck ran to peer over the port side. I gripped the railing, heart in my throat. Only the stranger Brennan stayed away, his back against the stern bulwarks, his eyes on us. He made no move to help. We lowered a boat at once, but found no trace of the sailor. Not even a body to pull up. Vanished.

When the rescue boat returned empty, the crew stumbled back to work. I stopped beside the stranger and looked up into his pale face. My throat tightened. "Whatever could have made Jeb fall?"

Brennan shrugged and turned away.

That evening Cook tripped in the galley and scalded himself so badly that his right hand had to be bandaged halfway to the elbow. In my sleep that night I heard the Cook's cry and saw his red, blistering skin. As I stood in the dream, helpless to move toward him, another figure rose from the shadows. Jeb, the dead sailor, stood barely recognizable, water washing over his face and onto the floor. I woke with a cry strangled in my throat. My chest tight, unable to breathe, I stared into the darkness, thick and close against my face like a smothering curtain. When the darkness moved, glints of light caught in two eyes, hovering over mine. Jeb's eyes. After that I remember nothing. A crewman found me the next morning, fallen from my bunk, stretched on the deck with a bruise on my forehead. I said nothing of the dream; a strange sickness caught at my throat if I even thought of it.

Cook surprised me by his kindness, saying I might take the day to rest, but with one hand out of commission he needed my help. Struggling to assist in the galley kept me below deck, away from light and air, but it was a comfort to work beside another human being. I kept my eyes down, on my tasks. Even in the steam and the clatter of pots, I still feared the appearance of the dead sailor.

I did not see him until evening, as I took the captain his broth. Jeb stood looking out to sea near the mast from which he had fallen. As I stepped onto the deck he turned and gazed upon me, full and long, his eyes swimming with grief. I nearly dropped the tray. My heart thudded in my hollow chest as like a mist Jeb faded away. Two feet from him another sailor worked, his hands calm and steady. No one else had seen Jeb but me.

From then on I saw Jeb several times a day. Of course he haunted my dreams, sometimes appearing beside my father, sometimes behind Cook, once approaching my mother. Always looking at me, always streaming water that stung my nostrils with a sharper stench than the actual pounding ocean that surrounded me.

I was not truly surprised by the dreams. Grief had taken root in me, and I could only expect it to grow. But to see Jeb on the ship - in the daylight, up in the rigging or beside men who worked undisturbed, who even looked straight through him, walked through him - to see him in the waking world nearly drove me mad. Perhaps I did go mad.

The sailors didn't see the phantom, but whenever I left the galley to venture out on an errand I sensed uneasiness among the crew. One evening I left the captain's cabin, bearing away his untouched meal, and passed two sailors.

"He's a Jonah, I tell you." They leaned together, voices low. Catching sight of me, they stiffened and turned away.

That night I found Brennan on deck as always. He chose to sleep on a simple rolled blanket rather than take a hammock in the prow with the crew. A strange isolation surrounded the man; I don't recall a single sailor exchanging a word with him. As I approached, he was studying a square of paper. At the sound of my steps he put it away in a leather wallet, but not before I recognized it for the photograph of a woman and child. He gave me a weary smile, and I almost withdrew. But I had to speak to someone, and he alone seemed capable of hearing me.

"Sir, could you tell me something?"

He hunched over the railing and answered without a glance at me. "If I can."

"What's a Jonah?"

His head swiveled, and he gave me a long stare. "Where did you hear that word?"

I swallowed. "Just among the crew, sir."

He pulled off his hat and turned to glance around the deck. "Just now?"

"Today, sir."

His eyes darkened.

"What is it, then, sir? A Jonah?"

His lips tightened. "Seamen are superstitious. They think a Jonah is bad luck."

"How bad, sir? Enough to... make someone sick?"

Brennan gazed down at me. "Yes. Or worse."

The only sound was the creak of the sails, the lapping of the water. No voices, no songs. As if the crew were waiting. Or keeping watch over the vanished dead. "What do they do to a Jonah?"

He straightened and stepped away from me down the gangway. "Don't worry about that. There's no Jonah. No such thing."

I went back to my berth, trying to take comfort from the stranger's words. But would he know, really? He was no seaman.

I lay in the close darkness, missing the air of the deck, but too much of a child not to go to my bed when it was expected. I tried to still my mind. Yet scenes sprang up, turning my stomach. Cook's burn and the smell from his bandage. The stench of the captain's cabin and the pallor of his sweating face. Jeb falling like a bird shot out of the sky. My uncle, sickening in his big house. My parents. If anyone was bad luck, it was I.

The thought wrapped itself around my heart like a serpent. Could evil be in a person? Could it move, unseen, unopposed, picking and casting down victims? I didn't sleep that night. When Jeb appeared, I whispered to him vague words of comfort, bits of prayer I remembered from my mother. He left sometime before dawn.

The next morning, I rose heavily, but anxious to get out of the dark. I took the captain's food from Cook, wondering if today he would be able to eat a bite.

One step into the cabin was enough. I knew the look of death, his jaw fallen open, his eyes fixed. I shoved the tray onto the table and, blind, fought my way onto the deck for help.

The mate raced to the captain's quarters but emerged slowly. The crew was roused now and waited for him in silence. He came to the main deck and gripped a rope from the shrouds, staring into eastern sky where clouds massed.

"He's gone. Captain Jacobs is dead."

A confusion of voices. "What are we to do?" someone shouted.

The mate turned to him in a flash. "Do? Follow our orders of course! We've a cargo waiting in Africa, and we'll be there. Three weeks more at most."

"Three weeks? We won't make it three days. Not with a Jonah." The voice came from a small wiry seaman at the front of the agitated crew. Pulling a curved knife from his belt, he strode to the stranger who stood immobile, half turned from the crowd.

My chest tightened. Brennan, the Jonah?

The mate leapt forward. "Peele, put that away. I'll have no murder on my ship."

But Peele heard nothing. His arm was up, ready to strike, as Brennan backed away, jaws clenched, face white. The mate closed on Peele, grasped his wrist and tried to twist it behind his back. The two seamen struggled, and before anyone could move, both fell to the deck, blood spewing over them. But only Peele arose, his whole body shaking as the others pulled him off.

The mate was dead.

The sea heaved, and for an instant all of us staggered. Wind whipped our faces as the sun disappeared behind blackening clouds. Panting, Peele stared about him. With the back of his hand he wiped blood from his face and turned again to Brennan.

"He's the Jonah. Get him off the ship!"

The wind increased to a roar, the sea rising and falling like a bucking horse. A handful of sailors ran for the rigging, but the rest surrounded Brennan.

"Who are you? What've you done?"

Brennan's eyes flashed, his fists up as if they could stop a knife. "I've done nothing. You're madmen. See to the ship."

"There's no saving a ship with a Jonah."

"He's no Jonah!" I shouted. "There's no such thing!" But my words flew back at me as the gale strangled my breath.

A sailor jumped behind Brennan and threw a rope around him. In an instant others cast more ropes tightening round his body. One jerked a sack over his head.

"This is murder!" The burlap muffled Brennan's shrill voice. "I've done nothing. For God's sake! I have a family. They need me."

I stepped forward, fists clenched, but a sailor pushed me down, cracking my head against the deck. Half dazed, I tried to rise, but it was too late. With a heave they threw Brennan, screaming, writhing like an animal, over the side of the ship.

I froze on my hands and knees until Peele turned and pointed a bloody hand at me. "Boy, get his things."

I stared, uncomprehending.

"Get the things that Jonah had with him. Throw them into the sea."

Another sailor stepped toward me. "Do it, boy. You're an innocent. You can touch the evil without harm."

My mind numb, I forced my body to obey. Near his blanket lay Brennan's cloak, hat and leather satchel. Without thinking, I opened the satchel and pawed through the clothing. I found a flat wallet and opened it. A handful of papers and the photograph. I stuffed the picture into my trousers and bundled everything else together.

"Toss them overboard." Peele gestured toward the sea. Like one of the murderers, I obeyed. But as the objects separated and spread across the churning sea, my lips murmured, "I'm sorry."

The storm let loose with all its fury. Waves like mountains pounded us, and with each plunge we feared the ship would crack apart. For hours we struggled, blinded by the night, the stinging water snatching us off our feet. We threw precious supplies overboard to lighten the ship. Three men washed off the deck as waves swept over them.

Near dawn the winds eased, the water stilled. In the growing calm, we repaired damaged masts and put up the few remaining sails. Half the crew was gone. No one spoke or met the gaze of his comrades. I obeyed in silence, afraid of all with blood on their hands.

The calm hung over us. No breeze stirred, as if all the wind in the world had battered us and flown away. The sea lay like glass, hard and indifferent. One by one the dead rose and wandered the ship, meeting one another without recognition. Crossing the shade of Brennan with no acknowledgement of their guilt. Gliding past the captain, who gave no order, lifted no hand. All paused before me, lingered near me, fixed me with their stares. None of the living crew gave sign of seeing them at all.

At nightfall I returned to my berth. I slept a little, dreamless, deep. When the nightmare woke me, I came fully awake and, for the first time in my life, left my bed in the middle of the night to go up on deck. Not an obedient child any more. Not even frightened any more.

The shapes followed me, but closest stood Brennan. I walked to his customary spot on the railing and pulled out the photograph. A glint of moonlight reflected off the image.

An African woman, dark of hair and skin, and a child, lighter. The ones who needed him. We stood silent, Brennan's shade and I, as his head bent over the portrait.

"What are their names? I will pray for them." But of course he could not answer me. When finally dawn began to show in the east, his shadow thinned and slipped away. My stiff limbs barely took me back below.

Still the deadly calm continued. Even with strict rationing, our provisions dwindled. Water in the barrels grew green and slimy, giving off a foul stench. Men lay idle on the deck. A few might mutter a rare word, then silence fell. No one cursed. No one dared say an evil word when death hung watching us.

When men died, the crew said no words over them. The bodies just went into the sea. After Cook's body was flung away, I looked up at Brennan's spirit beside me at the rail. "When will this stop?"

A sailor stepped into Brennan's place and laid his hand on my shoulder. He shivered, then said, "Don't grieve over it, lad. There's nought ye can do."

I moved from him quickly. But his words came back in my mind. "Nought to do."

I wondered, my thoughts weak and unsteady. A Jonah could kill a ship. It was happening before my eyes. Maybe Peele had been right.

The ship must be cleansed of the Jonah. They had just targeted the wrong man.

I climbed into the shrouds and stood looking down into the water. It would be quick, surely. I couldn't swim.

But Peele saw me and it was he who pulled me down and onto the deck. Several of the sailors, sick and weak as they were, clustered round me, offering their shares of water, their bites of rancid food. I wanted to shriek at their goodness, to drive them away from me, but I had no voice.

I threw myself down into my berth and surrendered to the dreams, to Brennan's shadow and the company of the dead.

Two days later a ship found us. A fraction of the crew survived to tell of the storm and the calm. To whisper about the Jonah.

I fought not to board the rescuing ship, but someone just lifted me up, heaved me over his shoulder and forced me. No one wondered that my mind was troubled, and they cared for me kindly.

Somehow we reached Africa. The ship owner offered me a room in his home and a place on his next sailing. At the first opportunity I fled from him. I now live on the street.

I wish I could find Brennan's family, all of their families. I would do something to atone, though I don't know what that could be. I'd support the widows or orphans with my bare hands. But where are they? How could I find them? And would it do them good?

I don't know what I am or what I've done. I can carry nothing more, no more lives on my conscience. If healing is possible for me, I must find it alone.


  1. I enjoyed this. The pace, characterization, and dialog all worked together in a very cohesive fashion. There's an inevitability present throughout, but that doesn't diminish the action and the story. I appreciate that this didn't get bogged down in long-winded characterizations of the storm, etc. The description of the ghosts was vivid and complete with an economy of words. Well-crafted!

    1. Thank you for reading the story. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  2. Entertaining story and realistic, clear descriptions about the time and place...a good look at the crossing over between madness and reality, and the superstitions of the old days.

  3. Thank you for reading the story. Your thoughtful comments are helpful to me.