Ross splutters as another wave crashes down upon him, soaking him further in icy water. He clings to debris from their wrecked ship while the terrible storm blows them apart. Ross’ teeth chatter. The howl of the wind, the breaking of wood and snapping of the masts, and the screaming of his fellow sailors foretells his future. He holds onto a piece of the starboard bow, cutting his palms on the barnacles. The waves crash into him, and he’s slipping no matter how hard he tries to stay afloat.
From the neck down his body is slowly freezing, numbness soaking through him like the cloak of death. His hair is plastered to his head and his clothes are stuck to his back. The water is a terrible, drenching cold, and there’s a feeling of doom within him.
Ross is going down with this ship, and nothing is going to save him from it. He fights with himself not to lay his cheek against the salt-water roughened boards beneath him, but it’s no use. His grip is slipping. He closes his eyes.
Ross doesn’t wake so much as open his eyes again. His vision is a green-blue underwater blur. He feels himself being dragged along the seafloor by the collar. The sand is soft against his back. The heels of his feet make rivets, marking the path.
Ross doesn’t breathe. He finds he doesn’t need to. His mind is completely blank and devoid of thought. Not foggy so much as he isn’t thinking. Around him, the ocean is whisper-quiet.
An indistinguishable figure above him pulls him further across the sea bed.
Ross closes his eyes, falling away into the black that had consumed him before.
When he opens them again, it is with shock and realization- he has no heartbeat; no pulse. No part of him moves. Thoughts rush to the surface: the memories of the shipwreck and of the life he lived before are now distant glimpses.
Ross is laying back on a pile of ropes and ship’s tackle. Ahead of him is the broken hull of the ship he’s in, looking out to an empty, endless sea.
There are glass jars around him, each containing a solitary light in myriads of colors like stained glass windows of a church he remembers when he was a child. And that feels so very long ago. That feels of a lifetime ago.
He still cannot move, and he has no will to, either. Ross merely watches.
The figure he saw before moves into his line of vision once again, standing in front of him covered in shadow. It doesn’t startle Ross like it should; he’s dead. He’s dead and he’s at the bottom of the ocean. It’s a strange thing to accept, but it’s the truth.
The figure’s face is masked by the brim of a pirate’s hat- at least it’s a fellow man of sea, Ross thinks. But the figure reaches towards him, and if Ross had life in him, he would recoil.
Bone. The skeletal hand is grown over with coral and scales. It’s a distortion of marine life he’s never laid his eyes on before. The hand ends in claws, and the figure cuts a jagged line down Ross’ torso, ripping through his shirt and the flesh beneath.
He feels no pain. He feels nothing. It’s like a dream.
If Ross could scream, the water would muffle it, he knows. His throat should feel raw from the saltwater, from choking on the waves, but it doesn’t.
As the figure- the phantom, the devil, he doesn’t know- pulls his claw from Ross’ chest, something comes with him. It should be blood, but it isn’t. It’s too viscous. Silver. It sticks to the figure’s skeletal hand and shimmers in the strange light. The figure begins to wind the strand around his fingertip, tugging whatever it is free.
With every tug, Ross sees his death flash before his eyes again. Lightning strikes and thunderous booms. He sees the ship crash into the rock. He hears the shouts and screams of his fellow sailors as the bow begins to tip.
Fear ripples through him momentarily when he falls overboard again. He sees the sky disappear as the waves take him under. He feels his body sink to settle at the bottom of the ocean, and then the figure before him emerges to inspect his corpse.
Even in this vision, as the figure continues to wind the thickening strand of material, his features are shadowed. At the bottom of the ocean, the figure curls clawed fingers around Ross’ neck. His thumb taps upon his windpipe once, twice- as if checking for something that couldn’t possibly be there. Life. Breath.
Ross watches the figure drag his body through the sea, and then he comes back to himself again in the present.
The figure’s face is still hidden by his hat. In his clawed hand he holds a shimmery opal oval of what Ross can only guess is his soul. The final strand separates from Ross’ body, and at last his form jerks to animation, as if it’s been struck by electricity. His fingers twitch at his side; his puckered fingertips catch against drowned ropes.
The figure pulls a glass bottle from his coat pocket, and adds Ross’ soul- now glowing a cerulean blue- into the bottle. He seals it shut with corals that grow off his arm, and gently cradles the bottle in a nearby curl of rope.
Ross looks up, questions at the tip of his tongue. The figure stands, and the motion hardly stirs the water around them. He extends a skeletal hand to Ross to help him to his feet, and lifts his head to meet Ross’ questioning gaze.
Beneath his hat is a face like death- a skull, and empty eye sockets. He has three rows of pointed teeth, like a shark. The devil of the ocean himself.
Ross shudders and slowly takes the hand. The bones are smooth and knobbly in his palm. It should terrify him to recoil, but he’s too much in shock to process it.
The cold of the sea should feel different, with how long he’s been underwater, but it isn’t. Ross’ entire body is cold. His hands are scarred white from where he cut his palms on the barnacle-covered boards, trying to stay afloat. Nothing hurts, though.
Ross glances once more at his soul nestled in the rope on the floor, and then follows the skeletal figure from the room.
They rise the stairs into the upper levels of the ship, and Ross feels his form change ever-so slightly. Drying out. Water is sluiced from his body, but he doesn’t feel any different. He’s cold and wet, but it feels natural. Like a second skin.
His voice comes back to him, words tumbling from his lips unbidden.
“Who are you?” he asks, voice wavering.
The skeletal figure stops, and turns slowly.
Ross watches the barnacles and coral shift and melt, cover bone and transform into skin as pale as his own. When the figure lifts his head again, it isn’t a skull Ross sees, but a round face, with a reddish beard and hair. The man smiles, and his eyes are blue like skies before a storm.
“Call me Smith,” the man says, voice unlike what Ross was expecting. It sounds similar but smoother than his own voice; more lighthearted, too. He turns his back on Ross once more.
Ross follows, unbidden, up more stairs, to the deck of the ship. “Where am I? What is this place?” he asks.
It’s obvious he’s on some sort of ship. To the afterlife, he guesses. They’re sailing through the sea itself- water stretches in every direction Ross can see towards. There’s a misty, washed out glow around the sails. The entire ship looks eerie in the darkness of the night.
Various crewmembers are at work, manning sails and peering from lookouts. They appear to Ross’ eyes as frightening and strange as ‘Smith’ had looked before. Men and woman covered in barnacles and shellfish, with wide mouths full of sharks teeth, and bony hands carved into claws and talons. They speak varying tongues from all across the globe. They don’t pay Ross any mind as he walks past them, but they nod to Smith respectfully.
“You’re the captain,” Ross says, wondering why he isn’t more afraid than he is. He’s a soulless husk upon the ship of the most infamous devil of the seven seas.
Smith laughs, amused and cruel at the same time. “I am.” He turns towards him and grins. Ross can only see the sharks teeth instead of the painted on human-disguise. “Some call me Davy Jones...” Smith answers, “And in your lore, this ship is the Flying Dutchman.”
Smith leads him from the upper deck into an office of some type. There’s a great oak desk at the center, and a chair behind it. To the right is an open door that Ross can see holds a bedroom. It’s nice to have some privacy away from the monstrous crewmembers, but these are Smith’s quarters, and it feels so unlike the skeletal figure he was before to have a place of comfort.
Smith shuts the door behind them and steps up close to Ross, who freezes immediately.
“So- if I’m the captain, what do you think that makes you?” Smith asks with a smirk.
The prisoner? The captive? The servant, or the slave? There are a thousand possibilities.
“I- I don’t know,” Ross stutters, “You’re- you’re not human.”
“No...no, I haven’t been human for a long time...” Smith murmurs, stroking Ross’ cheek with the back of his hand.
Ross expects the scrape of barnacles, but instead, there’s only soft skin.
Smith draws his hand away and steps back, inspecting him with a casual gaze of a captain sizing up a crew member- but it makes shivers run down Ross’ spine.
“How do you look like this?” Ross asks. He licks his lips and tastes saltwater.
“I take the form you associate with death when we first meet. But this, that you see now, is what you would see as a friend, or a lover. I take whatever form you wish to see.” Smith gestures to himself as he walks around the desk to take a seat. He props his feet up and leans back in his chair.
Ross sighs in relief. “You don’t always look like a skeleton, then?”
“No. Unless you want to fuck the skeleton,” he teases.
Ross chuckles nervously. “I don’t, thanks.” The flirting comments make him feel unsettled. He doesn’t know what to think of Smith, or the fact that he is most certainly dead and stuck down here forever in Sailor’s Purgatory.
Ross looks down at himself, in tattered clothes, the same as he died in. He grimaces at the large tear in his shirt. “Will I stay the same?” he asks, raising his head to look at Smith again, “The others...some looked closer to human. But some looked like beasts.”
“Yes and no. Only if you wish to. Others see you as you were and how you wanted to be. You will take on some of the crustaceous form like the marine life in the deepest oceans, but only when water touches your skin. The longer you are here, the more you could change.”
Ross tentatively slips into the seat across from Smith, rigid in his posture, unable to relax despite a weariness in his body. He has more to ask but he doesn’t know if he should. He isn’t sure if it’s protocal for him to question everything his new captain wants of him.
“Any other questions?” Smith smiles, amused, as if reading his thoughts. “You are a curious one. Please, ask away.”
“The jar...” Ross continues hesitantly.
“Forever mine, I’m afraid.” Smith smiles.
“I am dead, then.”
“Yes. For all eternity. All souls who drown are mine to take.”
Ross shakes his head, not sure he’s willing to believe it. “Those who wind up in Davy Jones’ locker are the ones who deserve eternal torment- or so the legends of all pirates say.”
Smith hums. “I am a ferryman. The ship will take you wherever you need to go. Whether that’s Fiddler’s Green or the Ocean’s Deep.”
“How will I know where I’m supposed to go?” Ross asks.
“You’ll know. When, if, the time comes. Only then can you fetch your soul from downstairs, and end your time here.”
Ross leans back in the chair a little, staring at Smith and trying to will away the mirage of a skeleton. “So you really are Davy Jones.”
Smith shrugs. “I have many names. Smith is the one I take for now. The one you may call me by.”
Ross ponders that thought. Smith waves towards the open door to the bedroom. “Please. If you don’t have any more questions, you can rest. I don’t use the bed, myself; you must be exhausted. The newly dead are always so aloof.”
Smith stands, and Ross follows again. He lets Smith guide him into the bedroom and onto the bed. He sinks into the plush mattress- it’s so heavenly he can’t help but moan.
“Comfortable?” Smith asks, smiling. He quickly unlaces the boots on Ross’ feet and sets them at the foot of the bed.
Ross nods tiredly and yawns. He wonders why a captain is bothering to do take off his boots for him, or lend him his unused sleeping quarters. “What do you do? With the souls you collect?” he asks, because he has to know. He’s falling asleep quickly- who knew you needed sleep when you’re dead?- but he has to know, even as Smith is pulling a blanket up around him and running his fingers through Ross’ dark hair.
“Your soul I keep in a jar in the broken hull of the ship. Your drowned body and mind, however...” Smith grins as Ross’ eyes flutter shut. “That’s another matter entirely.”
When Ross next wakes, he finds Smith sitting at his desk. The captain rises to his feet and smiles. “Awake, I see. Come with me, please. There’s much to do.”
Ross follows him through the ship, to a dining hall below the water level. Jellyfish drift above, in and out through the chandeliers in the ceiling. A feast lies spread on a long, elegant dining table, at which numerous crewmembers sit.
“We don’t have to eat, but we like the camaraderie it brings,” Smith informs him, “The ship provides anything we need to sustain ourselves.” He elects Ross to sit beside him at the head of the table.
“What do I do while I’m here?” Ross asks, slowly taking in the array of shellfish, citrus, wines and ales, and cured meats.
Smith barks a laugh. “Work! What else? It’s still a ship. You’re still a sailor.” He reaches for a goblet of ale and smiles. “It’s not easy work, but this existence isn’t easy...”
He wasn’t lying.
Though he didn’t think Smith was in the beginning. More often than not Ross scarfed down dinner and passed out on the captain’s bed in the evenings. He was put to work hauling lines, and winding sails, and if it wasn’t for the never-changing skies and the barnacle-encrusted crewmates, Ross could almost believe he was still alive. It wasn’t so different- all the lost souls had given their lives and their love to the sea. There was still shipwork and upkeep to be done, and the evenings held time for card games and bawdy singing. Time felt non-existent, when nothing changed, and there was no cycle of the sun and moon to keep a calendar by.
Ross lost himself in his duty. It was mind-numbing, but it helped him accept what had happened. This was pirates’ purgatory. It could be worse so he didn’t mind waiting for whatever better place might come along, should he be lucky to get there.
Intermittently, he could feel the captain watching him. Not in a malicious way, but not disinterested, either. Smith didn’t inspect his work so much as he was watching Ross move, pleased. Ross found himself glancing around for the captain often, and when he caught Smith’s eyes, slow smirks were exchanged between the two of them. Glances turned to long, heated looks. Looks spur deep conversations, and the sharing of drinks before Ross goes to bed.
One evening found them both below deck enjoying the others singing and playing music. Many partners were dancing, men with men, but also men with a few women, and women with women. Smith and Ross danced together, jellyfish floating above their heads in the dining hall, their cold skin pressed chest to chest.
By the time Smith kisses him, Ross is not afraid of the man he’s slowly come to know. Smith’s lips are cold, but they are no less human than his own, and they instill the same human passion and the same human desire.
“Take me to bed?” Ross asks.
As eternity goes on, Ross sees more souls join them and more leave. Of his own volition, he surpasses others in rank, until he becomes Smith’s right hand, his first mate. Each night, he and Smith share the same bed, and only sometimes do they sleep.
“When I was newly drowned, the captain came for me as well,” Smith tells Ross one night, “She was beautiful, and feisty, with long, dark hair, and green eyes. The longer I stayed on the ship, the closer we grew. And we fell in love.” He says all this wistfully, but with a sadness Ross doesn’t quite understand.
“She left, too, didn’t she?” There was no woman of that description on the ship when Ross arrived.
Smith nods. “Yes. Eventually, all souls leave the ship. And when she left...I took her place as Davy Jones.”
“Wait, why are you telling me this?” Ross asks him, realization coming fast, “No- no, Smith, this can’t- you’re all I have, I can’t lose you!”
Smith gives him a sad smile. “You’ll find others,” he says.
“I don’t want any others, Smith-” Ross shakes his head. “I’ve lost everything...I don’t want to lose you, too.”
Smith kisses him sweetly. Ross holds him close, grasping onto the sheets they lay in, uncertain.
“It may not happen for a long time...” he soothes, stroking Ross’ cheek, “But if it does while you’re around...I want you to take my place.”
Ross leans his head against Smith’s on the pillow. “I don’t know if I can do that, Smith. I don’t know if I can watch you go. That’s- that’s hard to accept.”
Smith smiles, melancholy, and runs his fingers through Ross’ hair. “I know, Ross. You may as well go before I do. But if you don’t...I’m sorry.”
Though Ross would have preferred them both staying or them both leaving, he knew Smith had been on the ship for much longer than he had. One day, Smith disappears into the hull for a long time. At first Ross thinks he’s down there to collect someone, but when Smith comes up he brings a vial with him. Inside the vial, the soul glows a rusty red color. There’s no one with Smith, and the expression on his face is relieved and blissful.
“No- no - Smith.” Ross drops what he was working on and darts across the deck to take him into his arms.
Smith meets him halfway and kisses him. “I’m sorry, Ross,” he says, smiling with tears in his eyes.
“I’ll miss you,” Ross replies. His voice gets stuck in his throat.
Smith kisses him again, and again, passionately and then tenderly and slow. “I’ll miss you too,” he whispers, “We’ll meet again, someday. I promise.”
Smith steps away from Ross and pulls out the barnacle-cork in the bottle. His soul bubbles out of the top of the vial and disappears inside his chest. Smith’s body glows bright enough to tint the skies red. With one last look to Ross, he melts into the mist.
The crew turns to watch the streak of red in the air swirl up around the sails, into the eternal sky above them. The color fades, and then they look to Ross expectantly.
“Well.” Ross clears his throat. He feels a mantle of magic settle on him, and it warps to form a captain’s uniform around himself. He tugs the brim of his pirate hat low to hide his tears. “Back to work,” he orders, “A ferryman’s job is never done...”
The crew obey and take up his orders easily. Ross turns his back and leaves to the captain’s quarters.
Ross feels his form change as the decades pass, turn into bones and barnacles. And then one day, there’s another shipwreck.
He’s wandering the sea floor when he finds him. A sailor, drowned, with brown hair and pointed features. He taps the man’s windpipe once, twice. Nothing. No breath; no life left.
Ross looks back to his ship, knowing the crew and the hull of souls are waiting. He drags the body back slowly, with the ocean as his only company. He knows when the man reawakens, he’ll ask, “Who are you?”
“They call me Davy Jones,” he’ll respond, “But my name is Ross.”