It was a beauty of a day at sea. The warm wind was rocking the ship gently side to side, the seagulls were crying their atonal arias, and Captain Blackbird was relaxing on the poop deck in a hot seawater bath. As is natural for a happy bathing pirate, he was singing.
I’m floatin’ in a tin can across the salty sea
As piratin’ a pirate as a pirater can be
My cutlass, it is stained with blood, my rum’s flavoured with glee
When other pirates hear my name they turn their tails and flee!
He splashed happily in the sudsy bathwater and called out orders to his fresh, inexperienced, but enthusiastic new crew. “Anchor the yardarm! Flop the mizzenmast! Haul clear the barnacle braces! Ah, ha ha ha!”
The First Mate, Davey Watchcomb, was sitting in a chair nearby, keeping a dutiful eye on the small fire that was heating the water in Captain Blackbird’s tub from atop a pile of stones. “Sir,” he said, “pardon my ignorance—as you know, I’m a farmer and not a sailor—but what, exactly, is a ‘barnacle brace’ and where are they meant to haul it clear from? Also, which one is the mizzenmast?”
Captain Blackbird held his ribs and howled with laughter. “Ha ha, hee hee! Aye, but that’s the fun of it, Davey boy! Watch ’em scramble! Watch ’em fuss! Who’s the one in the yellow cap?”
“That’s Soggy Samuel, sir.”
“Oi!” called Captain Blackbird. “Oi, Soggy! Get the jib slot fastened to the quarter-sail right away, lad, or I’ll cut my bath time short and have you pirouettin’ off the plank!”
Soggy Samuel snapped a hasty salute: “Aye aye, cap’n!” He whirled around twice in confusion, grabbed a length of rope at random, and began tying it to a hook set into the deck.
Captain Blackbird laughed so hard that he started sloshing water over the sides of his bathtub. “D’you see him?” he gasped. “Tyin’ the rope… AH HA HA! That rope isn’t even connected to anything, Davey boy! These lads don’t have a clue in the world. Bless my heart, they wanted to be pirates…” He wiped a tear from his cheek, and his eyelid twitched involuntarily. He rubbed his eye, but it twitched again.
He tried to ignore it. “Aye, well, Davey Boy, I’ll soon set ’em right. Gather ’em in, lad, and drop the anchor.”
“Aye, sir,” said Davey. “Er, and if you’d just remind me…”
“Arrr…” Captain Blackbird rolled his eyes. “The lever in the bow, lad. Nay, Davey, the bow’s the front o’ the ship.” His eyelid twitched again. Probably a reaction to so much time in the bath. He’d been in for nearly three hours now, judging by the sun, and glorious it had been. He inspected his wrinkled, pruny fingers. His eyelid twitched again. Maybe he was developing some form of nervous tic. A week at sea with these landlubbers had been amusing, aye, but also trying. They had to have every little thing explained to them….
His eyelid twitched again.
Then he heard the voice. It was a thin, bubbling, multi-toned voice, and it sounded like it was coming from inside the bathtub with him.
“Oooohh,” it said. “Ooohh, aaahh, ooohh.”
Captain Blackbird looked down, then up, then all around. There was no one else on the poop deck. Where was the voice coming from?
“Wooooe,” said the voice. “Woe is me in this sleepless sea…” The water in the bathtub rippled as it spoke.
“Who said that?” demanded Captain Blackbird. “Who’s there?”
The voice bubbled softly for a few seconds. Then it said, “You hear me, sir?”
“Aye,” said Captain Blackbird. “I can hear ye, wheedling stranger. Who be ye?”
“It is wonderful to have another intelligent soul to converse with,” said the voice. “I am a mere kraken, a lonely, sleepless kraken with nobody to love.”
Captain Blackbird sat up straighter in his bathtub. “K-k-kraken?”
The voice sighed. “Indeed, sir.”
“Oh, aye, I see now,” said Captain Blackbird. “You’re one o’ me crew, playin’ a joke. Aye, and a riotous tickler it be. Ha ha ha…” He laughed nervously. “Davey? Soggy Samuel? Fineas Bunker? Which of you…?”
Just then, Davey crested the stairs to the poop deck. “Your pardon, cap’n,” he said, “but I’ve got the crew all assembled below, awaitin’ your orders.”
“Aye, thank ye, Davey,” said Captain Blackbird. His eyelid twitched as he raised himself out of the bath and pulled his breeches over his soggy, waterlogged legs. He scooped a bucketful of bathwater onto the fire, dousing it. Then, taking up a bottle of rum, he swigged a mouthful, stepped to the edge of the poop deck, and glared down over his motley crew. “Now,” he said, “which one of ye be makin’ that voice? An excellent joke it be!”
The voice bubbled up again: “Why should I play a joke, sir?”
“Arrr!” said Captain Blackbird. “Who said it? Who?”
“Er, cap’n,” said Davey, “no one spoke, sir.”
“O’ course they did!” said Captain Blackbird.
“I said it,” said the voice. “I, the lonely, restless kraken. Can you still hear me, sir?”
“Aye, I hear you!” The captain waved his bottle of rum at the crew. “Certainly I hear you! And a bottle o’ rum to the man I’m hearin’, if he’ll only tell me who he is!”
The crew cast anxious glances at one another. Who was the captain talking to?
“Thank you, sir,” said the voice. “I would much appreciate a bottle of rum. It might help me to sleep. But I am no man. I am a kraken.”
“Aye, indeed,” scoffed Captain Blackbird. “A kraken, you say. A kraken that speaks in the voice of a man, and that swims but half a mile from the shore…”
Davey stepped closer to the captain. “Cap’n, did you say… k-kraken?” His knees were beginning to shake.
Captain Blackbird pushed his first mate away angrily. His eyelid was twitching incessantly now. He dug his fist into his eye socket, trying to stop the tic. “Aye, I did, but I didn’t say it first. You heard his voice: he claimed it himself! And I’m gettin’ right fed up with the buffoon. There’s such a thing as carryin’ a joke on too long…”
“Cap’n,” said Davey, “I didn’t hear anything. You’re the only one speaking, sir.”
Captain Blackbird glared at the first mate. “Now, Davey—”
“I swim so close to shore,” said the voice, “because I cannot sleep, though I try and try. But I am not speaking with the voice of a man, sir. I am speaking in the voice that only a creature of the sea can hear, only one whose flesh is steeped in saltwater, whose veins run with it… Are you not a fish of the sea, sir?”
The captain raked his stare across the crew below, each in turn. They looked up at him, confused. Blackbird held his hands in front of his face, his thoroughly wrinkled, saltwater-soaked hands. “No, er, friend kraken,” he said. “I be no fish of the sea.”
“Are you, then, a man?” said the voice.
“Wonderful!” said the voice. “And this hull above me, then, must be your ship?”
“A kind whale told me that men sing the very best lullabies, sir, and I am so desperately in need of sleep… Will you not sing me a lullaby?”
Captain Blackbird furrowed his brow and tilted his head to the side. His eyelid twitched. “A lullaby? I am a pirate, and I sing only pirate songs. I know no lullabies.”
“Oh, but you must!” said the kraken. “You must, or I shall reach up and hug you tight until you remember one!”
First Mate Davey stepped in front of Captain Blackbird and addressed the crew. “Back to work, I think, lads,” he said. “Our captain, it seems, has spent too much time soaking in the sun for today, and is becoming delirious.”
“He said something about a kraken!” said Soggy Samuel, tremulously. “Are we to be dragged to the ocean depths by a sea monster?”
“No, no,” Davey assured them. “The captain is merely suffering sun stroke.”
Captain Blackbird sat down on the edge of his bathtub. Was that was happening to him? Was he suffering sunstroke?
The voice bubbled up once more. “Sing me a lullaby!” it demanded again.
“Hush,” said Captain Blackbird. “I will not sing a lullaby. A pirate does not coax babes to sleep; he kidnaps them and laughs as they cry, then either ransoms them for a king’s fortune or raises them to be a nasty, evil pirate all their days. No, I will not sing a lullaby to the voice inside my head.”
“So be it, sir!” said the voice. “If I cannot have a lullaby to help me sleep, perhaps some exercise will do the trick.”
Davey took Captain Blackbird’s coat and was wrapping it around the captain’s shoulders when suddenly a massive tentacle, at least three feet in diameter, shot up out of the sea in a cloud of mist and towered over the ship. Another tentacle burst from the water, and then another, and another. The crew shouted in alarm and began rushing to and fro across the deck, wailing in fear.
“Captain!” cried Davey Watchcomb. “A kraken! A kraken! What can we do?”
Captain Blackbird leapt to his feet, mouth hanging open wide. In all his years of pirating… Was he truly seeing this beast of the sea, or had he gone completely mad?
“Captain!” said Davey again. “Your orders, sir?”
“Arr…” said Captain Blackbird. “Axes up, lads! Axes and torches, me hearties!”
The crew broke open the tool chests in the cabins and began taking up axes, cutlasses, and torches. Before they could fully prepare, however, the attack was on. The tentacles came whistling down like whips, crashing across the ship and shattering the masts. More tentacles emerged from the depths, eight in total, and soon all eight were wrapped across the ship’s deck, squeezing the ship in an ever-tightening hug of crushing destruction.
“At it, then!” called Captain Blackbird, and the crew began to hack at the kraken’s rubbery flesh with their axes and cutlasses and singe it with their torches, to little effect.
The kraken’s voice bubbled up in Captain Blackbird’s ears. “Ooooh!” it cried. “You sting me, you burn me, foolish man! I will drag you to the depths, sir, and introduce you to my friends the sharks!”
“All at once, me hearties!” said Captain Blackbird. “Focus your energies, lads!” The crew followed his orders and all turned to direct their efforts towards a single tentacle. The kraken’s skin began to bruise, and slowly to break, under the focussed assault. It bled green, and writhed, and drew its crushing grasp tighter.
“Vicious man!” hissed the kraken to Captain Blackbird. “Spiteful man! I asked only for a lullaby, and you have brought it to this! Sink, now, sink and die!”
Captain Blackbird could see that all was lost. The ship would be crushed to bits at any moment, and despite his crew’s best efforts it would take far too long to cut through even one of the kraken’s tentacles. This was no time for pirate dignity… If only he knew a lullaby! Gripping his beard in his hands as his eyelid twitched and twitched, he wracked his memory, searching his long-forgotten childhood for any helpful tune, any soothing rhyme…
It came to him suddenly, with a flash of colour, a hint of texture, a whiff of scent, and a scrap of melody. He hummed the notes through gasping, terrified lips, and as he continued, more came to him, more melody, more memories, and, at last, those soothing words.
Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels
Treasures stol’n from kings and fools
The kraken’s tentacles loosened just a touch, and the churning of the water around the ship slowed. Captain Blackbird’s crew halted with axes in mid-swing and looked up at the fearsome bearded pirate as he faltered, then began again from the beginning, and sang.
Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels
Treasures stol’n from kings and fools
Rum and grog pour like a flood
Over plunder stained with blood
Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels
Pirates live by their own rules!
Everything was silent for several seconds. Captain Blackbird’s eyelid twitched, twitch, twitch, as he stared down at the kraken’s tentacles and his crew standing over them. A single tear dripped from the corner of Captain Blackbird’s eye.
Then the tentacles loosened their grasp and slid away back into the ocean, leaving the water roiling behind them with bubbles and froth.
The kraken’s voice whispered inside Captain Blackbird’s head: “Thank you, sir,” it yawned. “Thank… you…”
Captain Blackbird slumped down to the deck and took a long draught of rum. He reached for his hat, hanging on a peg at the foot of the bathtub, and settled it onto his head. His eyelid twitched once more, gently, and then fell still. Gathering himself, the captain tried to regain control of the situation. He was going to have to do some damage control for his reputation after this. “Now, then, lads,” he began—
—But the crew was piling into the lifeboats and lowering them down into the sea in a panic, fighting for the oars. The lifeboats splashed in the water and the crew began to row, frantically and with all their might. Their lifeboats turned haphazardly left and right, only gradually making progress towards land in crazy zigzags.
“Where are ye leavin’ to?” called Captain Blackbird. “Come back, lads, come back!”
Davey Watchcomb stood up in his lifeboat and yelled back, “No thank you, sir! We don’t sail with madmen who talk to krakens, sir, or with so-called ‘pirates’ who sing lullabies, either!” The lifeboat heaved as one of the crew gave a mighty pull on the oars, and Davey tumbled out into the sea.
Captain Blackbird sighed as his former first mate floundered in the water and tried to climb back into the lifeboat. He finished off his bottle of rum, hopped down to the deck, and nonchalantly loaded a cannon. They’d all been useless landlubbers, anyways…