Foxed but foxy
The King in Yellow and Robert Chambers

Fiction: 'A Raft' by Charlie Human

“You are so pale, Sir Reginald,” Miss Tate says through her purpled lips. “Are you ill?”

The raft pitches on the water. The expanse of the sea is like a great mouth waiting to swallow us forever. 

“A slight fever, madam,” Sir Reginald says in his stiff, formal way. “Nothing more.”

On this raft we all have our place. Mr. Baines, bald and stout, is ministering to the needs of our souls. “Mystical revelation!” he shouts at the burnt sky. “The seven veils are lifting and the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed!”

We float on the endless black pool, nothing stirring except romance. Star-crossed lovers, Miss Tate and Sir Reginald, unable to move to console one another in the hour of their greatest need. A proposal then! Called clearly across the crush of poor lost souls. A marriage! A marriage under a dark, soot-filled sky. 

“Sir, I have no dowry. My mother is a kitchen maid. Do not embarrass me for your own sport,” Miss Tate cries. The water has made her white dress sheer. I try, and fail, to avert my eyes.

Sir Reginald will hear none of her protests. “We need not consider marrying for money, land or status,” he says. He has a military air that commands us. His red hair is plastered across his forehead and yet he still looks regal. “We are beyond the constraints of birth and circumstance,” he says to the crowd. “Out here we are free to follow our hearts and marry for love!” His speech moves us all. We feel their love like it is a flame. 

Mr. Baines, his small round face solemn but his eyes burning with fervor, officiates the ceremony. “The Beast has done his worst,” his voice, filled with spiritual authority, calls out across the waves. “He has spat fire and sulphur into the air and covered the sun! He has usurped Poseidon himself and sent waves thundering across the deep. But here we have hope, a spark grown into a fire; the joining of a man and woman in holy matrimony.”

The ceremony is simple and the atmosphere on the raft reverent. When husband and wife are unable to move near enough to kiss one another I kiss each of their lips in turn, a chain to join lips and hearts together. In other circumstances this would be improper, but we are past that now. 

The hellish sea is unmoved by sentiment. I can feel it sniffing and licking at the raft like a scavenger, eager to devour us but prepared to wait for however long is necessary. 

“Let us be thankful that we’re all in this together,” I murmur. And just like that my raftmates turn on me. 

“You, what good have you done?” Sir Reginald thunders. “You’re a servant gone mad, a lunatic only saved from the asylum by the destruction of our ship.”

“A madman,” Miss Tate confirms, her face exuding the virginal white glow of a newly married woman. “If we had reached Australia you’d have been for the madhouse for certain.”

“We should throw him overboard,” others mutter.. Dozens of voices start to sing “Drown him" in a steady hymn to the heavens. 

“Patience, Christians!” Mr. Baines says. “Aren’t madmen closer to God? Perhaps he is merely filled with the spirit of our Lord and Master.”

“Listen to him!” I wail, and scratch at my cheeks in fear. “Haven’t I done the most? Didn’t I create the vehicle upon which we sail across this abyss?” 

I use my hands to twist the cold, bloated face of Sir Reginald into a frown, my fingers moving his flesh like clay. “A raft made of corpses,” he says, his eyes staring into eternity “A rather ingenious idea for a madman to come up with. Rather ingenious indeed.”

Charlie Human is a writer from Cape Town. His first novel, Apocalypse Now Now, features a porn-peddling teenager, a disturbed military veteran and an ancient mantis exoskeleton with the power to rend dimensions. Yes, it’s true what they say; the first novel is always autobiographical.

"A Raft" was first published in Pandemonium: Ash (2013), a collection of six stories set in the aftermath of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa. (Amazon US / Amazon UK / Kobo / Goodreads)