Curse of the Painted Elephant

“It’s you or the elephant,” declared the captain, and all could see by the set of his oversized jaw that he meant it.

Mr. Crawford adjusted his monocle unnecessarily.  “That elephant is the entire purpose of this expedition,” he reminded the captain.  “Without the elephant you don’t get payment, and without me you certainly don’t.  I’m afraid the answer is no.”

Captain Sterling studied my employer with a dangerous glare.  “It’s not about payment anymore, sir, it’s a matter of getting these men home to their families.  Tonight something goes overboard.  That cursed elephant, or you.  Your choice, but make it quick.”

“Mr. Crawford, if I may,” I called, following in his wake as he stormed to his cabin.

“You may not,” he snapped, rounding on me.  His monocle made his left eye appear enormous, and increased the effect of his stern expression.  “William,” he said, “how old are you now?”

“Fourteen and a half, sir.”

“Man enough to carry on the trade without me,” he nodded.  “I’m a man of principle, William, and I’m willing to take my chances in a dinghy if it means we can rise above these superstitions.  You must get the Painted Elephant to Mr. Aspen at the museum.  See to it that Captain Sterling is reminded of my sacrifice daily, there’s a good man.”

“But Mr. Crawford,” I protested.

“Give this to Martha,” he added, handing me a stack of letters from his desk.  “Tell her I’m on my way home.”

I stared at the letters.  Mr. Crawford was a good man, but stubborn.  If anyone could row home from the middle of the ocean it was him.  Still, this was unnecessary.

“Sir,” I tried again, but then it started; the cause for the unrest aboard the Queen Gwenneth.  The singing.

On that first night when I’d asked about the source of those haunting tones the crew told me it was the wind through the ship’s old timbers, though they listened with ill-ease and I’d wager no one slept.  The next morning when I mentioned the lack of wind in our sails I was told to keep my thoughts to myself.  I spent that day scouring Mr. Crawford’s collection of scrolls on our cargo, the fabled Painted Elephant of Amar.  In my lessons there had been sections Mr. Crawford instructed me to look past, and now I translated these figures with care.

I learned that even during the height of the Amaran civilization there were tales of the Painted Elephant ‘singing’ once the palace had quieted for the night.  King Hm’na’me moved it to a treasure room deep underground, which was why it had escaped pillaging for so many thousands of years.  Mr. Crawford was the one who realized that the treasure room was not under the king’s palace, as so many before us had assumed, but on the other side of Hiemnat Ridge. Despite knowing that King Hm’na’me had essentially banished his prized possession, Mr. Crawford refused to ‘give in’ to the superstitions of the crew when the winds died four days into our return voyage and the singing began.  That night when I shared my discoveries with the men in my section, though, I discovered that it wasn’t Amaran curses that worried the crew at all, listening from our quiet shadows as the sun abandoned us to those otherworldly tones.

“We know exactly what makes that sound,” said Mouse, so named for his small stature.  He wasn’t much more than a lump swaying in the hammock beside mine.

“Mermaids,” said the man they called Scar, for the sizable ridge that traveled half his face.  He’d told me it was from wrestling sharks but the others seemed to think he’d come from a background of piracy.

“It well may’ve been the elephant at first,” agreed Wallop, stretching his oversized arms through a shaft of moonlight, “but what we’re hearing now is mermaids for certain.  Stay down here and you’ll be fine.”

“What do mermaids do?” I asked, aware that Mr. Crawford would chastise me soundly if he knew I was entertaining this sort of talk.

“They lure you into the sea with their singing,” answered Mouse.

“And you’re never seen nor heard from again,” said Wallop.

I listened to the ethereal tones with new interest.  The song seemed mournful, or longing.

Scar disappeared after that, and then the fellow they called Rumdrum.  The captain insisted on a curfew at sundown, but men still managed to go missing, one by one.  The singing grew louder.  No one called it wind anymore, beyond Mr. Crawford, and my stubborn employer even went so far as to accuse the crew of playing tricks when we found the latch to the cargo hold in pieces and a puddle of water under the elephant.

“It doesn’t… look different somehow, does it?” murmured Mouse.

I’d been thinking the same thing, though I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time.  The elephant statue stood tall and proud, its decorative paint still fine and vibrant after these long years, and executed with exquisite detail.  Its eyes shone as if real, and watching.  Shouts beckoned us on deck, where a crowd of men leaned over the railing.

“Looks just like Scar!” exclaimed Wallop, pointing at a large fish lurking off the Starboard side.

“That’s nonsense,” scoffed the captain, shoving through the oglers.  “Looks like supper.  Extra rations for the man who catches that fish!”

“Quite right,” I heard Mr. Crawford saying as he and the captain strode away.  “It’s good not to allow their superstitions to flourish.”

The fish was caught with ease; almost as if it swam willingly into the net and waited patiently while we heaved it on deck.  Silence fell as we gazed on it up close.  The scar that crept along the fish’s head was a perfect match to our missing crewman.  Without a word the men heaved the fish back into the sea and no more was said on the subject.

The next day Mouse was gone, which I only noticed when Mr. Crawford’s shouts drew me back down to the hold.  The replacement locks had been wrenched off during the night, and this time there was no mistaking it.  The elephant was closer to the door, it’s trunk arced upward and a front leg pawing at the air.  A puddle of seawater stretched from the elephant to where I stood.  I took a step away.

“According to Amaran legend,” said Mr. Crawford, “this elephant, though it appears to be marble, has internal hinges of some kind.  There are many tales of it being discovered around the palace before ending up in the treasury of King Hm’na’me.  Certainly a trick to frighten the commoners.  I’d remind you, captain, that this is a priceless artifact, and I’d appreciate it if your crew would leave it alone.”

Captain Sterling’s mighty jaw made a rotation as he chewed down unsavory replies.  “My crew are terrified of your artifact, Mr. Crawford,” he said at last.  “They see that elephant as the cause for our current state.”

“Don’t tell me you’re giving into the superstitions of your crewmen,” scoffed Mr. Crawford.  The captain replied with a steely gaze and returned to the deck.

I helped Mr. Crawford re-attach locks and bolts to the door.  That night the singing was all around.  It was beautiful!  The two men who remained in the crew quarters had to stop me twice from climbing on deck for a view.

“It’s the mermaids,” whispered Wallop.  “They’re aboard.”

We listened together to the small noises above the singing.  Boards creaking.  Locks rattling.

“It’s so lovely!” I shouted, wrestling against Wallop’s tree-trunk arms.  “Please, let me see!”

Wallop held me tight, and sometime around dawn I slept.  It was only a handful of crew who reported for duty that morning, though I noticed the cluster of large fish hovering off the starboard side had increased significantly.  That was when the captain put his foot down.  The elephant, or Mr. Crawford.

Staring at the pile of letters in my hand and watching my employer make his final preparations, I wanted to shout at the man.  Was he blind?

Then the singing started.  The yearning from the night past hadn’t lessened, and before Mr. Crawford could waylay me I was running toward the deck.

I found the Painted Elephant emerged partly from the cargo hatch, one leg planted on the deck and its trunk coiled around a straining rope.  The captain was gone, as were the crew.  Mr. Crawford’s footfalls behind me went quiet but when I turned he wasn’t there.  I wasn’t worried.  The singing filled me and I wanted only to breathe it in.  Taste it.  At the starboard rail a school of fish lingered, including one with a bulging jaw, and a fish just joining the others with a ring around one eye that looked just like Mr. Crawford’s monocle.

“Hello William,” said a voice from behind me.

I turned to find a girl sitting on a barrel, and in the place of legs, she swung a long fish tail back and forth.  Her wide eyes were the color of the ocean and she wore a shell in her hair.

“Hello,” I stammered.  “Was that singing you, or the elephant?” I asked.

“Both,” she replied.  “We can take any form we like when we go to land, and my brother so wanted to travel with the elephants.  But then he was captured and kept from the sea too long.  He lost the ability to change back, and eventually, to move.  These long years he’s called to us, and we could do nothing.  Now, though…” she said, and she smiled as a pair of mermen shot out from the water, sending a spray of salty water raining down on us as they passed over and dove again into the ocean.  The elephant shifted, pulling its weight onto the deck.  “We’re calling him home,” she said.  “He says you tried to tell the other men about him,” she added.  “He thinks you wished to help him, William, is that true?”

“It is,” I said.

“Then I will allow you to choose what kind of sea creature I turn you into,” she smiled.  “In thanks.”

I gulped.  “Could you turn me into a merman?” I asked after some thought.

She looked surprised.  “You would want that?”

I nodded, though in truth I was rather fond of being myself.  “That way I could turn back into a man,” I said, “in case anyone else got trapped on land.  I could rescue them for you.”

The mermaid’s wide ocean eyes grew wider.  “Why would you do that?” she asked.

“I can’t imagine anything lonelier than being trapped away from your family,” I answered.  I thought of my poor mother and sisters, who would never hear my song from under the sea.

“If I leave you as you are,” said the mermaid, “would you do this?  Would you rescue our family, no matter how far inland they are?”

“I’ll make it my life’s mission,” I vowed.

“Very well,” she agreed, and as I watched legs replaced her tail.

She walked to the elephant’s side and rubbed behind his ear.  The elephant let out a mighty trumpeting and together they walked to the rail.

“I don’t mean to be ungrateful,” I said cautiously, “but I can’t sail this ship by myself.”

“Your crew didn’t see things as you do,” the mermaid said crossly.

“But they could,” I said.  “I imagine they’d be so grateful to have their bodies back they’d be more than happy to help.  Please…”

With a nod, the mermaid and the elephant dove into the ocean, and in the ripples I saw hands and then heads surface as the crew swam back to the ship.

If you’ve heard stories of William the Whisper, the thief of fine artifacts who strikes in the night… if you’ve heard tales of his dedicated crew, including Mr. Crawford, the most superstitious man alive… or the mystical ship, the Queen Gwenneth, that sails on imaginary winds in a bed of mist, surrounded by a beautiful singing that will haunt you all your days… chances are, you’ve heard tell of me.  And chances are, most of it is true.

Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com.  This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure.  Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure.  Thanks!