Last week I used Chuck Wendig's challenge to jump back into the flash fiction pool with "Stitch and Bitch". Well, there was another picture I wanted to tackle for that challenge. Coincidentally, this morning I found another flash challenge, this one dropped by Thomas Pluck over at F3. Like Wendig's challenge, the writer pens 1000 words in any genre. This one, however, specifies that we follow Tom Waits' anatomy lessons and give our stories weather, food and a city name. To make it more fun, Pluck added that we need a song, too. Well, I can kill two birds with one stone. I can write the other story I wanted for Wendig's challenge AND jump in on Pluck's! I used Pluck's prompts and photo #43 from the "Unexplainable" list. And here you have it, folks. Coming in at 999 words, the rough cut of "A Man of Discerning Character". I hope you enjoy it.
A Man of Discerning Character
by Jamie Wyman
As I ambled about the docks of
Liverpool I stuffed my hands
deep into my pockets. While winters can be frightful on this island, the biting
winds coming off the Irish Sea make Liverpool
especially loathsome. I had business, however, and a trip to the harbor was an
unwelcome necessity. Bundled in my coat I passed several ships including a
passenger ship bound for the Colonies. My interest piqued, though, as I drew up
along side warship of the Royal Navy.
The hull identified her as the HMS Alyssum. Her silent guns pointed uselessly out to sea while the Jack overhead snapped in the bitter wind.
My surname is not Higgs, but I started just the same. A mariner shouted across the deck of the Alyssum and pulled my attention to the man sitting at the railing nearest to dry land. Mr. Higgs, I presume.
“Higgs!” he called again. “You’ll catch your death of cold. Get back down below!”
“Aye,” Higgs called over his shoulder. “I’ll catch me death, but first I needs a net strong enough to ‘old ‘im.”
With a shake of his head, the officer retreated into the bulk of the ship. I, however, stayed to watch the immobile Higgs. Though the
morning was overcast and blustery, the officer sat in little more than his
breeches and a thin white shirt. His cap rested upon his head at a rakish
angle. The full beard hugging his face may have helped him to stave off the
Intrigued, I stepped closer to the Alyssum until I found myself mounting the gangplank. That is when I heard him singing.
“…our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's. I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox…”
A horribly loud sneeze on my part drew the officer out of his tune and his eyes darted to me.
“’ello, sir! Come just in time to join the Captains’ Mess, you ‘ave.”
“You are the Captain?”
Higgs cackled. “No, sir. I be a bosun and nuffink more. But the captains, they come ‘ere every day ‘round about now for supper and a good spot of tea. I’m sure they would welcome such a one as you to table.”
I shifted uncomfortably. Even moored on the line, the ship bounced over the slightest of waves. “I appreciate the offer,” I said, “but I must respectfully decline.”
“If you’re so inclined.”
The bosun’s gaze drifted past me and down the slant of the gangplank. His eyes lit up as a broad, toothless smile spread across his furry face.
“Ah, Captain, punctual as ever!”
Higgs stood to salute his superior officer. I turned to look but saw no one there. Then something nudged at my ankles. I looked down to see a white and brown cat twirling in figure-eights around my feet.
“Likes you, ‘e does!” Higgs said proudly. Addressing the cat he chimed, “Captain, I’ve prepared your favorite, today.”
Higgs had no thought for me. He stuffed his hand into his trouser pocket and fished out a biscuit, a nib of cheese and two sardines. With utmost care and delicacy Bosun Higgs placed each morsel on the deck at the feet of the cat. With the slightest nod of gratitude, the cat set to his meal.
“That is your captain?” I asked.
“Aye, me commandin’ officer. Captain Nibbles, is everything to your liking?”
The cat licked his chops and went on gutting his fish.
“Crackin’!” Higgs said.
The bosun reclaimed the crate he used for a seat then reached behind it to produce the mounted head of a fox.
“Captain Aldus Fox, at your service,” the bosun said reverentially. “Terror of the Channel, ‘e is.”
Higgs took a brush from his belt and began to tend to Captain Fox’s russet fur.
I blinked at the absurdity before me. A petty officer in the Royal Navy serving a state dinner to a stray cat and a stuffed fox? Bosun Higgs seemed to feel no shame or apprehension at his startling behavior.
“Mr. Higgs,” I said, “that is not a captain but a fox.”
“O’ course ‘e’s a fox! A sly, salty dog ‘e is, too. Rumor goin’ about the crew is that Captain Fox is due a promotion.”
“Aye. Groomin’ ‘im for admiral.”
I should have taken my leave at once, but the foolishness of it all grated on my proper sensibilities. “Look you, Bosun Higgs, you are quite daft if you believe that this taxidermist’s project is your superior. Such nonsense! And while he may, in fact, possess more sense than yourself, neither does the cat hold a rank higher than a spinster’s mate. Good man, I believe your mind is cracking.”
Ignoring me he returned to singing his Gilbert and Sullivan. “…I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes.”
“Very well,” I said. “Since you cannot see reason I’ll be on my way.”
“Weigh anchor, sir, if you will and then you shall not t’ sea.”
Then without further thought for me, he returned to his humming and the task grooming Captain Fox for his promotion as Captain Nibbles finished his meal.
I put Bosun Higgs from my mind, and resumed my trip down the dock to see Captain White about passage on his next trans-Atlantic run. Two months later, though, I saw Mr. Higgs again. Teeth-chattering and delirious, shocked from watching the unsinkable HMS Titanic gurgle beneath the waves, I bobbed along in the freezing spray. I saw, then, a wardrobe drifting by. Bosun Higgs sat upon it with Captains Fox and Nibbles.
“Bosun, come about,” Captain Nibbles said. “This man requires our aid.”
Soon the barge was before me. Higgs offered me his hand and smiled his gap-filled grin. “Welcome aboard,” he said. “Soon you’ll be on our fine ship.”
Higgs snorted. “Can’t you read? Asylum! That’s where we belong. Ain’t that right, Admiral?”
The fox nodded. “Too true.”