The Okhotsk Trade
By Joel Tagert
Art by Peter Kornowski
Published Issue 121, January 2024
The Zvezda Morey had cannon, guns, steel. The deep-dwellers had needle teeth, claws on their webbed hands and feet, and countless numbers. They were hatched by the thousands in the darkness, voracious in their legions, contained only by the availability of food and intolerance of the sun. They thrived by the volcanic vents, ecosystems untouched by light and unglimpsed by human eyes. Even shallow waters pained them, much less the open air; but the offense to their god could not go unanswered.
On an unnamed island in the Sea of Okhotsk, trading for fox furs, the captain found something that interested him: a pendant of carved red coral worn by an Ainu shaman, an old woman with a black smile tattooed upon her lips and cheeks in the native style. “What’s that?” he asked. The shaman shook her head, indicating it was not for trade; but Morozov insisted, and with five armed men at his back, the woman finally handed it over.
The carving was intricate, the design a whirlpool of swirling bodies. “What do you think?” he asked the purser, Zhukov, the closest thing to an educated man the brig possessed other than the captain himself.
“Not Ainu. Incredible craftsmanship. Chinese, maybe.”
But the old woman insisted it was not. She said it was from the island. The captain promised an axe if she could get them more. She pursed her lips, obviously not wanting to agree, but it was well known that the Russian traders were violent and easily provoked, and already they had been catcalling one of the younger women in the village.
She led them down the cliffs, to the entrance of a cave that would have been dangerous in the event of a sea surge. She had brought an oil lamp and led them inside by its light.
Fifty yards into the long tunnel the black rock was ridged with ancient carving, much worn with time. The carvings were figural, but the proportions misbegotten, the poses unanchored to anatomy. The sailors, hard men inured to cold and wet, shuddered and muttered curses, but the captain led them forward and they were bound to follow.
At the very rear of the cave, an altar: a chest-high platform of black rock set without mortar, and upon it a carven idol. No human thing. A statue of red coral tall as a toddler, with eight outstretched limbs and a Medusa head of writhing snakes or tentacles with a ring of teeth at its center. The coral glistened, appeared to wriggle in the wavering lamplight. In niches behind it, other carvings, other idols whose sources could only be guessed at: figures with bulging eyes and pendulous extrusions, five-armed, six-eyed, shelled, segmented, sinuous, sea-slug alien.
“Gather what you can,” the captain said. “Try not to break it.”
The sailors exchanged looks of consternation. “Captain,” ventured Grigory Petrov, able seaman, the largest and most senior among them, “what do we want with these? It’s devilry.”
“You need to read the papers, Petrov,” answered Zhukov for the captain. “These days museums and rich collectors pay thousands for statues like this. This could make our fortunes.”
That shut them up. They may have been superstitious, but they were traders and in it for the money. They took all they could carry, and Petrov himself carried the Medusa.
And Petrov it was who went down to the hold in secret that night, opening its crate to place a sardine in its lamprey mouth, feeling himself in the grip of a fever dream. When he returned the next night, the fish was gone. A rat might have taken it, but he didn’t think so. This time he gave it a spoonful of red cod roe, telling no one of the sickness he felt when he looked at his fellow humans, how unnatural they suddenly appeared. They had already pulled anchor, with the sea rising, the little cove of the island being an unsafe place to harbor in a storm.
Three hours later, with the weather dirty and the ocean bearing crosscurrents that made the brig twitch and shift uneasily, the deep-dwellers swarmed. Twelve of the crew were already on deck due to the storm, and three were pulled instantly into the water with hardly time to grunt in shock. Captain Morozov, always quick, dived into the cabin and locked the door, scrambling for his revolver. The others fought as best they could, but the waist-high amphibians were quick as snakes and innumerable as a school of mackerel.
Petrov, too, was quick — strangely quick, already standing beside the tender when the attack came. He got the small boat into the water in seconds, dispatched two attackers with a belaying pin, and leapt into it with Zhukov fast on his heels. This was no conscious decision; a wave of flat-eyed creatures was scrambling toward the purser, and the tender was the only place to go.
The next minutes were a blur. They fought for with oars, fists, feet, the bailing bucket; and then, to Zhukov’s surprise, they had drifted from the Zvezda and Petrov was making headway with the oars. The deep-dwellers seemed to ignore them. “Row, man, row!” the purser said, but Petrov was already pulling with all his might, grunting with each stroke, casting wide eyes at the water around them and the carious rocks guarding the entrance to the cove. Across the waves came a shrill disbelieving scream: Nyet, nyet, nyet!
Almost they made it, but with the tide short of full, a stone stove three planks of the tender’s bow; and then they were drifting on an easy surf into the beach. The tender settled to the bottom in four feet of water, but so desperate were they to be on dry land that they did not even drag it onto shore, but staggered forward out of the sand, past the beach grass and a line of carved wooden poles, to the edge of a fire burning there.
The villagers awaited them. The shaman said nothing, standing with staff in hand and
chin raised, satisfaction tattooed upon her face.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Peter Kornowski is a PNW artist specializing in imaginative realism, magical nightscapes, strange encounters, the unexplained & more. See more of Peter’s work on his site, where he also offers commissions. Follow him onInstagram and on YouTube.
Check out Joel’s December Birdy install, Spawning Ground, and Peter’s October Back Cover, The Creature On The Ridge, in case you missed it or head to our Explore section to see more from these talented creatives.